At JOAs, The Circ-Rich Get Richer, and the Circ-Poor Get Poorer

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

By definition, a joint operating agreement (JOA) is not an equal partnership between newspapers. The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 requires one newspaper to affirm that it is “failing” and would go out of business if not allowed to share production and business operations with its competitor.

The latest FAS-FAX report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations neatly documents how the circulations of JOA partners often move in different directions over time.

Consider the newest JOA — the four-year-old combination of MediaNews Group’s Denver Post and E.W. Scripps Co.’s Rocky Mountain News — and the oldest, the partnership between the family-owned Albuquerque Journal and Scripps’ Albuquerque Tribune that has been operating since 1933, long before there was a Newspaper Preservation Act.

In Denver, the difference in the daily circulations of the Post and the Rocky is just 156 copies: 275,136 vs. 275,292.

In Albuquerque, though, there’s a yawning gap between JOA partners that grew a little more this reporting period. The Journal reported its weekday circulation as 107,306, while the Tribune circulation was 12,878. Both papers reported declines from the same period a year ago, but the differences were huge there, too. The Journal was down 2.1%, while the Tribune shed 10.4%. The decline of the weaker JOA paper appears to be accelerating: Just four years ago, the Tribune could still boast a circulation of 20,000.

The circulation gap is growing at America’s most contentious JOA, the troubled marriage between the Seattle Post Intelligencer, owned by The Hearst Corp., and The Seattle Times, principally owned by Publisher Frank Blethen and family, with 49.5% owned by Knight Ridder. The two papers are battling in court, with Blethen seeking to end the JOA, which was approved in 1983, and Hearst wanting a court order to keep the agreement alive.

In this reporting period, the Times was essentially flat, down a statistically insignificant 454 copies from the same period last year to 231,051. The P-I, though, was down 3% from the year-ago period to 145,964. As Bill Richards, the freelance writer hired by the Times to report on JOA-related issues, noted in an article earlier this week, the P-I’s circulation has dropped by more than 28% over the past decade while the Times “has remained relatively stable by comparison.”

Seattle is not unique; the gap is growing at most JOAs. Four years ago in Tucson, for instance, there was a difference of about 61,000 copies between the bigger Arizona Daily Star and the evening Tucson Citizen. In the latest reporting period the difference has grown to 70,739. It’s even starker in Birmingham, Ala., where The Birmingham News reports a Monday-through-Thursday circulation of 145,506, and the evening Birmingham Post-Herald reports a Monday-through-Friday figure of 8,019.

Sometimes the gap remains steady. In Detroit — where a ferocious newspaper war inflated circulation through the 1970s until a JOA brought a truce in 1989 — the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have managed to keep a difference of about 120,000 copies, even as both continue to lose circulation.

More often, though, the chasm widens, inevitably spurring speculation about the weaker paper’s fate. The Cincinnati Post is the latest paper to be cut loose because of declining sales. Its JOA partner, Gannett Co.’s Cincinnati Enquirer, has told the Post it will not renew its partnership when the agreement expires on Dec. 31, 2007.

The Post’s circulation tells why: Thirty years ago, it had a circulation of 188,000. When the FAS-FAX came out this week, it showed the Post sold an average 36,990 copies every weekday.

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