Seattle's newspaper joint-operating agreement (JOA) is one of just 11 that survive, remnants of a public-policy initiative aimed at holding...

Seattle’s newspaper joint-operating agreement (JOA) is one of just 11 that survive, remnants of a public-policy initiative aimed at holding back the free-market tide.

The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 was a present from Congress to the newspaper industry, an exemption from antitrust laws. It allowed competing newspapers to cut costs by merging everything but their newsrooms if the Justice Department concluded one paper was failing.

Supporters said the law would keep two editorial voices alive in a city, even if the marketplace no longer would support both. Critics said it was a license for big-city publishers to fix prices and, in effect, “print money.”

“JOAs were thought of initially as a guarantee of profits pretty much forever, or at least for the indefinite future,” said Stephen Barnett, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and expert on the act.

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Since 1979, however, 16 JOAs have folded, and in only a handful of cities have both dailies survived the breakup in any form, even temporarily.

Of the 11 JOAs still operating, one is scheduled to terminate Dec. 31. Six others, including Seattle’s, have been renegotiated over the past three years. Many observers consider some of those amended contracts first steps toward shutting down the smaller newspaper.

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Barnett says some publishers got greedy and quickly forgot the promises to communities to maintain editorial diversity.

“You may be making money in a JOA,” he said, “but you can make more money by reducing your costs, which you can do by closing one newspaper.”

In city after city — St. Louis; Miami; Pittsburgh; Nashville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala. — the publisher of one paper in the JOA has agreed to shut it down before the contract’s expiration date in return for cash or a piece of the surviving paper’s profits.

Stephen Lacy, a journalism professor at Michigan State University who studies media economics, said many cities simply won’t support two newspapers now, even with the advantages of a JOA.

“The JOAs didn’t change the social and economic alterations that were taking place in the country,” he said.

The circulation of most afternoon newspapers, inside and outside JOAs, shrank as the size of the blue-collar work force dropped, he said. Ad dollars followed. New competitors and new technology — suburban papers, alternative weeklies, cable and most significantly the Internet — sucked eyeballs and advertising away.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or