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October 06, 2005

ARCHIVE: Joint Operating Agreement


Las Vegas Sun
The Las Vegas Sun, now a morning paper.

After 55 years, Las Vegas lost it's evening voice this week. The Las Vegas Sun was rolled into morning distribution with the Las Vegas Review Journal. It's an anomaly in the US newspaper industry. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

SOUND: Newsroom

PLASKON: The Review Journal's newsroom is Downtown. The Las Vegas Sun is across town in Henderson. The only editorial relationship legally allowed between the two is the newsprint on which their words appear.

SOUND: Printing press.

PLASKON: One-company has controlled the business operations of the two papers since the United States Department of Justice approved it in 1990. It's what's called a Joint Operating Agreement or JOA.

LACY: Most people seem to be interested in them, but most people don't know much about them.

PLASKON: Steve Lacy, Michigan State University journalism professor briefed UNLV students last week about the ever-merging operations of the Sun and R-J. He's an internationally recognized researcher on JOA's and has testified before congress on the subject. He was here over the weekend to study this JOA. He explained that these agreements started in the 20th century, when urban daily newspapers began to ride off into the sunset - cities like Detroit and New York began to combine their up to a dozen daily newspapers. In 1933, the last two papers in New Mexico decided to merge too. Lacy describes the strategy.

LACY: Join the business operations, keep the newsrooms separate. But in 1969 the Supreme court ruled that JOA's violated anti-trust law and everybody went 'duh', but nobody cared until the 1960's.

PLASKON: Newspapers responded by pressuring congress to vote for the Newspaper Preservation Act - that newspapers could have a monopoly and be exempt from anti-trust law. The one requirement is that the owner must retain the two established editorial voices.

LACY: Sure enough it took a year to pass because all of those senators and reps want to curry the favor of the newspapers.

PLASKON: Lacy says the law is terribly written and it doesn't solve the problem driving the declining papers like the Sun out of business. That problem is that advertisers continue to spend their money on the paper with dominant readership, in this case the R-J, and the trailing paper, the Sun continues its downward spiral regardless of the Joint Operating Agreement. Lacy says that has led to the eventual demise of JOA's to date.

This weeks' issue of the Las Vegas Sun however included absolutely no advertising and calls to the advertising department confirmed that the company doesn't sell advertising in the Sun . The publisher of both papers Stephens Media Group declined to comment on how it will gage the viability of Sun if it doesn't accept advertising. That's one way the Sun-RJ Joint Opperating Agreement is different from JOA's in the past.

LACY: This has never been tried before. The only way they are going to survive is if they come up with creative ways to serve the community.

PLASKON: The strategy is different in another way too. The Sun hopes to do more investigative pieces. Speaking on Face to Face with John Ralston, editor Brian Greenspun's said the Sun is planning to spend more time on meaty stories and be like the New York Times.

RALSTON: Suddenly you are the New York Times, what fantasy are you living in? GREENSPUN: Well, very few people have a second chance at life. Now we have a third chance at life and thanks to the review journal they have given us the last two.

PLASKON: Lacy of Michigan State says that's the case with Joint Operating Agreements around the country. JOAs are the lesser of two evils. He says JOA's typically mean more journalists on the ground than if the declining paper such as Sun had simply folded entirely, leaving the R-J as the only daily voice.

LACY: You know even the old saying, even a blind pig finds a truffle? Well even a blind reporter is going to stumble over the big stories. It is as simple as that.

PLASKON: The Sun and R-J are planning to continue intense competition for juicy truffles. Speaking on KNPR's State of Nevada the Sun's editor Mike Kelly said it let 9 reporters go, but have hired more investigative reporters and editors from the LA Times and Cincinnati Post. The R-J's Tom Mitchell said he is doing the same: Hiring better quality journalists.

MITCHELL: I think the readers benefit, I think the community benefits and we are fiercely competitive.

PLASKON: That fierce competition comes with some caveats.

KELLY: I think on average journalists today are better than they have ever been but you tend to not have enough of them so you can have great journalists but if they are overworked.

PLASKON: Not only are they overworked, but they are also better educated, writing complex stories written at a higher level of educational attainment that intimidates would-be average readers. Without enough business investment in newsrooms and more reporters, newspapers and other media like Television will continue to decline in audience and quality he says.

LACY: It is not an issue of whether it is going to cease to exist, it is an issue of whether or not it is something that is worthwhile to society. The whole idea of the first amendment is that news media serve a social function that it will help us choose leaders who will serve us best and that is function is not working very well right now. We have two parties that have become polar and it used to be that democracy was a compromise process. Now it is considered an insult. It is also a fundamental problem with the process.

PLASKON: Brian Greenspun said he hopes rolling the two voices into the same package will support democracy.

LACY: Now we are going to be right beside them . . . Now we are going to give them cover so that they can make the decisions they want to make.

PLASKON: Lacy says it's too early to know what will be the effects of sticking the Sun in the R-J.

LACY: One of the problems is that we don't have a fundamental understanding of how people use information. It's a study that hasn't really been conducted. We don't know how people will react to changes in the content because we don't know how they are reacting to the content to begin with and so it becomes trial and error.

PLASKON: Why don't we know?

LACY: We don't have the research.

PLASKON: Well you do research?

LACY: Well not research that allows us to study people over 5 years for instance. We need to increase our audience now.

PLASKON: Lacy says it will take 6 months before there is any indication of success or failure in the latest R-J and Sun joint operating experiment.

Ky Plaskon, News-88-9 KNPR

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Las Vegas Sun

Seattle Post-Intelligencer story on JOAs

See discussion rules.


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