In a petition to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the unions argue that the Detroit Newspaper Agency ? which runs business and production operations for Knight-Ridder Inc.'s Free Press and Gannett Co.'s News while the papers continue to compete editorially ? should lose its exemption from antitrust laws because it has violated terms of the government-approved joint operating agreement, or JOA.
The two papers ? which lost millions during the 1970s and 1980s while fighting a newspaper war to a virtual tie ? began operating under the JOA in late 1989. Until last year, losses continued under the JOA despite substantial increases in the rates charged to advertisers and readers.
Those increases, the unions charge, represent an abuse of the JOA's antitrust protection.
Also under study, an antitrust division spokesman said, is the JOA's publication of a combined News and Free Press since the strike began July 13. Normally, the Free Press publishes mornings, the News afternoons, and on Saturdays, Sundays and major holidays, they publish a combined edition.
Detroit Newspaper Agency has said it believes it is well within its legal right to produce continuing combined editions during the strike because it specifically amended the JOA agreement in 1992 to include just such a provision for strikes.
However, that amendment "doesn't necessarily grant them" antitrust protection, said Bill Brooks, spokesman for the U.S. Antitrust Division.
"It's sort of a vague situation at the moment," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "They technically can amend the JOA sort of any (way) they desire. There's a period of time when they (can) amend (a JOA), they file the changes, and we either don't do anything and it becomes effective, or we file objections.
"In 1992, we had no objections," Brooks said. Nevertheless, the division is reviewing the combined editions, along with other issues raised in the union complaint, he said.
Officials at both newspapers have said in recent days that they want to return to separate publication as soon as possible.
"There's no date set for that, but we both are eager to resume separate publication ? as is the agency," said News editor and publisher Robert H. Giles.
However, there are a number of unresolved production issues about putting out two papers during the strike ? although it has already been decided that the News will resume evening publication, said Susie Ellwood, vice president of market development for the newspaper agency.
"Absolutely. We don't have any choice in that, honestly," she said.
When and if separate papers reappear, given the volatility of the strike, DNA is unlikely to give much advance notice of the development.
By: Mark Fitzgerald THE U.S. JUSTICE Department's Antitrust Division says it is "reviewing" complaints from the AFL-CIO and striking Detroit newspaper employees that the joint agency that operates the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News is acting as a "price-fixing cartel."