‘Post’ might be toast in Cincinnati

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By: Joe Strupp

Imagine that after 24 years of marriage your spouse wants a divorce, but wants to keep living together, sharing finances, and relying on each other’s help for nearly four more years. Wouldn’t that make cohabitation a bit difficult?

That’s the scenario facing The Cincinnati Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer, joint operating agreement partners since late 1977 who will part company when the JOA expires on Dec. 31, 2007. Gannett Co. Inc., owners of the Enquirer, recently announced plans not to renew the JOA. The agreement requires either side to give three years notice if it wants out. Gannett could have waited until the end of this year, but a company spokeswoman said owners of the dominant morning paper saw no reason to delay the news.

“The idea was to get it out there once we made the decision,” said Tara Connell, vice president of corporate communications for Gannett, which owns 100 U.S. dailies. “It gives [the Post] more time and we want everyone to know what is going on.”

But for the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., which owns the afternoon Post and 20 other daily newspapers, the timing makes things difficult, according to Alan M. Horton, Scripps senior vice president/ newspapers. He said Gannett’s decision to announce the JOA’s demise early creates real uncertainty for the Post’s readers and workers. “The timing clearly doesn’t help the Post, to be in that limbo,” Horton told E&P. “It makes it more difficult to maintain a current staff and that fighting spirit.”

The JOA, which began in Sept. 1977, gives the Enquirer control of all business operations and the Sunday paper, while the Post publishes six days per week. Profits are split through a formula in which the Post ends up with just over 20% before expenses, Horton said. Although the JOA has allowed the Post to continue operating, its daily circulation has plummeted from about 188,000 when the agreement was established to 42,219 during the six months ending September 2003, according to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations Fas-Fax report. About half of the Post’s circulation is in northern Kentucky, where it distributes as The Kentucky Post.

The Enquirer, meanwhile, holds a commanding daily circulation of 182,176, according to the same ABC report. “The handwriting is on the wall about afternoon papers,” said Connell, noting the major reason Gannett wants out of the JOA. “The people in Cincinnati are not supporting an afternoon paper, and we are ready to move on.”

Cincinnati is one of 12 cities with newspapers operating under a JOA. Among the 11 others are two involving Gannett papers, in Detroit and Tucson, and three owned by Scripps, in Denver, Birmingham, Ala., and Albuquerque, N.M.

Because the Cincinnati JOA is set to expire in 2007, there is no need for a U.S. Justice Department review or other approval for the two papers to part company, unlike other cases in which newspapers seek to end a JOA early or dissolve it for disputed reasons. The divorce will make survival of the Post as it is almost impossible. “You need a variety of things to do that,” Horton said when asked if the Post could go it alone. “You need presses, you need delivery people, and advertising people. Right now, we only have editorial people.”

But Horton said that does not mean the Post could not exist in another form, publishing less frequently, becoming a free paper, or partnering with someone else. “Maybe this isn’t a six-day paper, maybe it is a three-day paper,” Horton said. “There are a lot of options to be explored.”

One rumor circulating has Cox Newspapers, owners of the Dayton Daily News, located some 50 miles north of Cincinnati, keeping the Post going in some way. With its purchase of two Cincinnati suburban papers ? The Journal-News in Hamilton and the Middletown Journal ? in 2000, Cox has moved closer to the area. It also built a new $90 million printing plant south of Dayton in 1999.

“We have not had any discussions with anyone about that,” Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers, told E&P. “We take care of business in our markets. I think it would be a folly to think we could or should go in there.”

In other scenarios, Gannett could buy the Post and either close it, merge it, or run it as an afternoon offshoot of the Enquirer, although Connell says that is not being discussed at this time. “If they want to sell it, we will take a look,” she said. “We talk with them all the time, and they would need to decide.” Horton said selling the Post is just one of many options that could be considered.

Newspaper observers give little hope for the Post to survive on its own, and keeping it going in the afternoon would be difficult, they say, given its poor circulation record of late. “The history of dissolved JOAs is pretty much without two survivors,” said John Mennenga, a newspaper analyst at Mennenga & Associates in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I would give Scripps very little chance.”

John Fox, editor of Cincinnati City Beat, the local alternative paper, agreed. “I’d hate to see it, but I really think it is going away,” he said of the Post. “It is the story of what is happening to afternoon papers.”

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