The announcement that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is being put up for sale—a legally required step before shutting down the paper because it is in a joint operating agreement—has stunned many of its journalists. Their reactions, in news stories and their own blogs, reflect the continuing state of denial that their profession exists within a news business affected by financial and economic forces. Or, at least, their belief that it should be immune from them.

It should comes as no surprise that Hearst Corp. is seeking to end publication of the P-I. Its joint operation with Seattle Times has been an unhappy marriage and it has not been financially effective for many years. Changes made in the agreement in recent years have been insufficient to turn the operation around and the paper and JOA operation have continued to be a financial drain on its participants.

A similar offer-for-sale-before-shutting-down process is underway in Denver, where the Rocky Mountain News is likely to cease publication because E.W. Scripps Company is no longer willing to continue bearing its losses.

Joint operating agreements have been seen by many in the industry as a way of keeping two newspapers operating within the same city, but JOAs have been a continual failure since they were authorized in 1970. The biggest problem is that JOAs ignore the basic economics of newspaper publishing and merely provide benefits from a newspaper antitrust exemption that allows collusion on advertising and circulation prices, market division, and other acts prohibited by federal law. Those benefits were never enough to “save” papers in the long run, but allowed publishers to gain a limited period of time to try to squeeze more money out of the operations.

The vast majority of troubled papers in the past 4 decades were never able to get the leading paper in their towns to enter a joint operating agreement and they ceased publication without one. Even the majority of those that entered JOAs saw one paper cease publication. Only 9 JOAs that publish two papers still remain in force and it looks like it will soon be 7.

Two years ago I published a scholarly article on how JOAs end and I warned that Seattle exhibited many of the negative conditions that were likely to lead to its demise. And that was before the economic downturn. Sometimes I hate getting things right.

Link to article Natural Death, Euthanasia, and Suicide: The Demise of Joint Operating Agreements