Fight Against JOA For Daily And Biweekly
By Chris Kent
Chris Kent, a San Francisco-based freelancer.
The small California town of Manteca may go down in newspaper history as the site of a precedent-setting battle over the merits and dangers of joint operating agreements. The daily Manteca Bulletin and the twice-weekly Manteca News in the San Joaquin Valley have been tussling with the Justice Department and anti-JOA combatants for three years over the papers' application for a merger.
What sets this impending JOA apart from past newspaper mergers is that it's the first between a daily and a non-daily. That has media watchers fearful that big dailies looking to eliminate competition will feel free to gobble up alternative weeklies and free community newspapers. "If any other business engaged in monopolistic practices and price fixing, they [the newspapers] would be going crazy," says Ray Hartmann, president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. "Here they are doing the same thing. It's appalling." Even if the Justice Department nixes the JOA, the decision, due at any time, would still make history: it would mark the first refusal of a JOA application by the feds.
JOA critics cite the Manteca merger as a shining example of the flaws in the Newspaper Preservation Act and the political games played at the expense of newspapers. The NPA, enacted in 1970, allows struggling newspapers to merge business departments as a last resort in order to preserve editorial voices. Since the beginning of JOA proceedings between the Manteca papers in 1988, the Justice Department argued that the News was badly mismanaged and hemorrhaging money and therefore in no condition to become part of a JOA. This past May, the department suddenly reversed itself, announcing that it would recommend JOA approval to the attorney general. At the same time the department canceled public hearings on the JOA.
Manteca News Photo Editor Adrian Mendoza, founder of No Way JOA, a group opposing the merger, says the two papers' healthy rivalry would be destroyed by a JOA. "It would be like Pizza Hut and Domino's joining together," says Mendoza. The News would benefit more from improved management or by being sold to another publisher, he says. "There are some local people that are looking to buy the News , so they must see something in it worth saving."
Manteca Bulletin Publisher Darell Phillips says a JOA would save jobs that would otherwise be lost if the News closed. "The important thing to do is save newspapers. The NPA is the law, and it says we're allowed to do what we're doing." Mendoza and other critics of the JOA say the Bulletin strong-armed the financially weaker News into applying for the JOA, a charge Phillips denies. News Publisher Antone Raymus isn't talking.
In the face of accusations of coercion and financial mismanagement surrounding this JOA, why did the Justice Department flip-flop and advise the attorney general to approve it? The department, through spokeswoman Gina Talamona, declines to comment. Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley, says the reversal is typical of the department's hands-off approach regarding the NPA. "The Justice Department's whole philosophy is to deregulate," and to get the media on their side, Bagdikian says.
The weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian , which has aggressively reported the twists and turns of the Manteca JOA for months, accuses outgoing Attorney General Richard Thornburgh of wanting to curry favor with JOA newspapers in Pennsylvania because of his run for the Senate there. "As long as Thornburgh remains in office with his heart set on running for the Senate, he will be under great pressure to court the media," says a recent Bay Guardian editorial. "At the same time, Thornburgh will retain final say over whether to approve JOAs...That's a serious conflict of interest."
In hopes of getting some answers to the questions surrounding the JOA, Manteca's mayor and city council, among others, are petitioning Thornburgh to reschedule public hearings in the city. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies is pinning its hopes on a House bill, introduced by Rep. Carl Pursell of Michigan, calling for repeal of the NPA. But these efforts may not bear fruit in time to head off the Manteca JOA.
"The only real competition in 98 percent of our cities comes from weeklies," says Bagdikian. "They're under a lot of competitive pressure from dailies, and they may very well be tempted to go into a JOA." ###