York's colorful newspaper history continues: The owners of the city's two dailies swap publications.
By John Morton
John Morton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
York, Pennsylvania, has always been an offbeat kind of newspaper town, so perhaps it is fitting that, in an unusual deal, the owners of York's two dailies recently switched properties. There are strategic reasons for this transaction, but before exploring those, first a little history.
For a long time, the newspaper situation in York was a thorn to those, like me, who have been called upon in various court cases involving newspapers to explain why it is unlikely that two competitive dailies can survive, even in some of the largest cities. One daily almost inevitably goes out of business.
York, of course, is not large. Yet there it was for years, a small city (population 41,000) with two competitive papers going at it in contravention of the conventional wisdom about the newspaper business. Although the bromide "the exception proves the rule" might be a comforting response, bromides do not serve well in antitrust cases. Sharp-tongued lawyers won't let you get away with them in cross-examination, so the witness has to come up with some more solid rationale.
My response always was that York was atypical. It is a blue-collar town with much of its population going to work early and coming home early, which favors evening newspapers. Most evening newspapers suffered from the effects of many cities' transition to a service economy, in which people go to work late and come home late, a lifestyle that favors morning newspapers.
And then there was politics. The two newspapers that serve the region (which are now in a joint operating agreement) are the Daily Record, a morning paper with 46,500 weekday circulation, and the York Dispatch, with 37,300 weekday and 93,200 Sunday. The Daily Record has been owned since 1970 by Buckner News Alliance, a Seattle-based company that publishes small dailies in several states. The afternoon Dispatch and its Sunday edition, the York Sunday News, have been owned since 1988 by William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group.
The Daily Record earlier in its life was known as the Gazette, and it was owned by a resolute and colorful leftist named Josh Gitt. As evidence of Gitt's political leanings, the Gazette in 1948 endorsed Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party nominee for president, and in 1964 refused to sell advertising to Republican Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. As for the Dispatch, until the 1980s it may have been the oldest-looking newspaper in America, maybe even in the world. Its front page then carried no photographs or local news--even the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, 12 miles away, was relegated to the back page. And its narrow columns, smudgy type and one-column headlines with numerous subheads gave the Dispatch the appearance of a newspaper lifted out of the 1890s.
These distinctions between the newspapers doubtless contributed to their ability to hang on to their readerships. Another unusual fact about York's past is that for a long time it was perhaps the only American city to have an independently owned Sunday newspaper, the York Sunday News. Yes, York had three newspaper ownerships, the two weekday dailies and an independent Sunday. It must have been a wonderful town to work in as a journalist.
York's newspaper history eventually was muted by the same economic forces that have tamed other colorful places. Buckner acquired the Daily Record and started its own Sunday newspaper. The Dispatch acquired the independent Sunday News. In 1990, after a long competitive battle, the two ownerships sought approval of a joint operating agency under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which allows two commercially competitive newspapers to combine all non-news functions so long as it can be proved that one is in danger of financial failure.
In the final wrinkle of York's peculiar history, it was not the afternoon paper, the Dispatch, that was failing, the pattern in most JOA applications, but the morning Daily Record.
Now to the present. Under the recently announced deal, Buckner News Alliance sold the morning Daily Record to the afternoon Dispatch's owner, MediaNews. MediaNews sold the Dispatch not to Buckner News Alliance but to one of Buckner's principal owners, Phillip Buckner. The Dispatch's York Sunday News, though, will go to the Daily Record. Phillip Buckner will be left with a weekday afternoon paper.
When the two newspapers entered into the JOA, MediaNews received an option to buy the Daily Record, which became the basis for the recent transaction. In effect, the option was insurance against the time when the afternoon syndrome might begin to erode the Dispatch's circulation. Indeed, over the last five years the Dispatch's circulation has declined more than 7 percent while the Daily Record's has gained nearly 7 percent.
Thus, the transaction brought MediaNews what it probably wanted all along--control of a seven-day morning newspaper. And it also probably ended York's history as an offbeat kind of newspaper town.
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