How Newspaper JOA Hobbles New Media Effort

By: Steve Outing

If, as I have, you've ever worked at a newspaper that's part of a "joint operating agreement," you know that JOAs are strange concoctions that impose sometimes bizarre rules on managers and employees of the participating papers. In the name of cooperation between the two newspaper companies, each paper faces legal restrictions about how it can use its content (news reporting, classifieds, display ads) outside of the JOA structure.

As newspapers develop and evolve their online ventures, JOA newspapers are at a particular disadvantage, because leveraging existing content (editorial and/or advertising) from the print side is sometimes prohibited by the terms of the JOA. Just as newspapers face serious threats from Internet companies bursting in to their local markets -- offering online local directories, entertainment guides, classified advertising -- some newspapers have one hand tied behind their back, clutching a JOA document written before "new media" was a glint in anyone's eye.

The JOA in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a classic example of this problem. The Las Vegas Sun, an afternoon paper with a circulation of 38,000, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a morning paper with 160,000 circulation, are part of a JOA written in 1990 and not set to expire until 2049. The newspapers operate separate editorial staffs and are intensely competitive, but they share common production and printing facilities, delivery drivers, and advertising operations. As with most JOAs, classified and display ads are sold by the JOA arm and may be placed in both newspapers -- with the respective publishers each getting a share.

Frustrating jobs

This week, I interviewed the new media managers at each of the papers, and learned about the frustrations of trying to build a newspaper online brand under the serious constraints imposed by a JOA.

The Sun has the more ambitious new media program, employing about 12 people and headed by general manager Bryan Allison. Its Web site, dubbed Vegas Deluxe, was launched in May 1996, and encompasses not only the newspaper but several other media properties of its parent company (such as ShowBiz and Scope magazines, which cover the local entertainment and teen/20-something scenes, respectively). The Review-Journal got started on the Web nine months later, and employs a new media staff of only three, headed by online manager Al Gibes. The R-J site is primarily linked to the newspaper itself. The JOA arm also has a new media staff of two: a Webmaster and an Internet ad sales person.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this online set-up is the papers' classified ads. The JOA operates its own Web site, which houses the classifieds and real estate ads plus JOA-produced content, such as special sections that run in print in both publications. The JOA Internet sales person sells online ads only to the JOA site, but cannot sell for either newspaper site.

Gibes of the Review-Journal says that when his site launched, company lawyers advised him not to link from the R-J Web site directly to the JOA classifieds site; however, it was OK to refer to it by publishing the URL, but it could not be a hypertext link. To do otherwise would have violated terms of the JOA. This situation lasted for about four months, then Gibes heard from company executives that he could begin linking to his own paper's classifieds.

At the Sun, to this day the Web site does not even link to or mention its own classifieds, although the paper does of course receive some revenues generated by the JOA site. Allison says that this is one of his greatest frustrations, and he would like to publish the paper's classifieds on the Sun site -- but have his own online staff be responsible for it. His primary desire is to keep his Web viewers on his own site; by pointing them to the JOA site he feels like his site is losing them. "That's what drives me crazy."

"They (the JOA) have done a pretty good job (with the JOA site), considering what they are working with," Allison says. "But my feeling is that we can do a much better job with it." The Sun has made a serious commitment and a major investment in its new media operation, and has faster servers and better equipment than the understaffed JOA online operation. Allison says he's even considering creating his own online classifieds section for Vegas Deluxe, or partnering with a local classifieds publication or "shopper."

No ads, please

Likewise, Web display ads are a point of JOA contention. Gibes points out that the R-J Web site has no banner advertising, because company attorneys early on worried that having advertisers on the site would violate the JOA contract. At the Sun, they're taking a more aggressive -- yet still cautious -- approach and are hiring an ad sales staff just for the Sun site (which, again, encompasses more than just the newspaper affiliation). Allison bemoans the JOA restriction that forces him to "start from scratch" in assembling a sales force, since he can't leverage the existing print sales force to also sell online ads in a package with print ads.

Lawyers for the companies and JOA also disagree on using editorial content on the papers' respective Web sites. A major bone of contention for Gibes is that he can't post to the Web any news from the print reporting staff until 3 a.m., which is an extremely frustrating situation when breaking news occurs. With a small online staff, the site has included only very limited original content -- such as during the infamous Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield ear-biting fight when the site posted live round by round recaps of the action. Gibes also occasionally posts photos that aren't published in print. He admits that he has bent the rules a few times in getting news on the site prior to the 3 a.m. deadline, but says he is "being very cautious" so as not to violate JOA terms.

At the Sun, Allison has also had to work around this restriction by assembling a large enough online staff to generate original content that he can't get from his own print staff. The Sun does not publish locally reported news in the weekend print editions; the JOA stipulates that the R-J reporting staff handles news in the joint-branded weekend editions. So, at the Sun's Web site, online editors work weekends while print journalists take their days off. Allison says that they primarily rely on wire service copy, but they do some reporting as necessary for breaking weekend news. The site also hires stringers to produce online content when necessary.

Allison says that promoting the Web sites in print also is a problem. Because of the JOA, the Sun gets a certain allotment of "house ads" that it can use. Unlike non-JOA papers, it can't just put in a promo ad for its Web service any time it wants. That can make it difficult to participate in things like New Century Network, which requires a minimum level of promotion in print in order for a newspaper to participate. To boost visibility of Vegas Deluxe, Allison has embarked on a print advertising campaign that promotes the site with paid ads in other publications, as well as online promotions.

Hope for change?

These are just some of the impediments that the Las Vegas JOA puts in front of the newspapers' independent Web sites. The list goes on. Both Allison and Gibes express their frustration at the situation, but say that over time they are hopeful that company lawyers can come to agreement that will allow both papers to build successful online brands. Gibes hopes that both sides will soon be permitted to sell onine advertising, and he expects the restrictions about advance publishing of newspaper editorial content to be worked away over the next year.

Still, to the outsider, these JOA roadblocks must seem absurb. At a time when cyberspace developments are threatening the newspaper industry, publishers need to respond quickly and intelligently. That's not possible under a JOA like the one in Las Vegas.

Particulary for a city like Las Vegas, which generates much interest among online readers from outside the state of Nevada, local newspapers must compete effectively online. Gibes and Allison both say that more than half of their online readers come from out of state; Las Vegas is a popular tourist destination, of course, as well as a popular area for relocation (especially for seniors). Each worries about the eventual arrival of online city guide companies like Microsoft's Sidewalk, which is setting up entertainment guides around the U.S. (I contacted a source at Sidewalk who handles what cities the company enters, and he indicated that Microsoft has "no immediate plans" to set up shop in Las Vegas.)

Neither newspaper currently has allied with an online city guide company like CitySearch or Digital City. The R-J, however, has become a content provider for a Netscape/Yahoo! "Destinations" Las Vegas city guide. Gibes says the partnership is designed to drive traffic to his site.

Given the future stakes, JOA newspapers need to resolve some of the issues apparent in Las Vegas. Changing the terms of a JOA to permit new media operations is difficult; indeed, JOA contracts are approved by the U.S. Justice Department. But failure for participating papers to agree to compete online with a full arsenal is suicidal. Would you like to do battle with Microsoft in your home town with one arm tied behind your back?

(It's worth noting that JOAs between competing newspapers are common around the U.S. At least 17 JOAs are currently in operation, including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Birmingham, Alabama; Charleston, West Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Cincinnati, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; El Paso, Texas; Evansville, Indiana; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Honolulu, Hawaii; Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Francisco; Seattle; Tucson, Arizona; and York, Pennsylvania.)

Contacts: Bryan Allison,
Al Gibes,

Movin' On

Deborah Jessop has left Southam New Media (Canada), where she was manager of research, to join the Media Research Institute in Hamilton, Ontario. She can be contacted at


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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