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From AJR,   April 1999  issue

A Bold, Promising Move to Morning   

A revamped JOA could strengthen both the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

Recent history demonstrates that when two competing newspapers enter into a joint operating agency, there is no guarantee both papers will survive. Often the weaker paper, usually a p.m., continues to lose circulation until the agency closes it or merges it with the morning paper.

However, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are about to set this conventional wisdom on its head with one bold act: publishing both newspapers in the morning. The Seattle joint agency will become the first to offer readers the benefit of head-to-head morning competition and the first to eliminate the effects of the "afternoon syndrome" that has killed so many newspapers in recent decades.

The Seattle joint agency already was unusual in that the dominant partner, the Times, had always been an afternoon newspaper. The Times had been able to maintain its dominance in the years leading up to the implementation of the Seattle agency in 1983 at least partly because of geography.

The city is flanked on the east by 17-mile-long Lake Washington and on the west by Puget Sound. These natural barriers tended to keep Seattle's middle class--the heart of any newspaper's readership--in the city. The Times could leave the newsroom fairly late in the day and still provide a reasonably timely newspaper to the bulk of its nearby, Seattle-bound subscribers.

In most other large cities without these barriers, the middle class fled to the suburbs, and afternoon dailies increasingly had trouble delivering a timely newspaper to their traditional customers because of traffic congestion. I recall interviewing the publisher of the Washington Star not long before it folded in 1981, who lamented that his paper had to leave the newsroom at 9:30 a.m. to beat evening rush-hour traffic to the suburbs. That did not give the Star much of a purchase on the day's news.

Move now to the late 1990s. The Times has suffered much less circulation loss than most big-city afternoon papers (few remain), but clearly the afternoon syndrome has set in.

Most growth in Seattle since 1983 has naturally occurred where there was room--on the other side of Lake Washington and to the north and south of Seattle. The newspaper's market is more far-flung than before, and rush-hour congestion now causes the Times major distribution problems.

Weekday circulation has dropped from 252,000, when the joint agency began in 1983, to 228,000. The Post-Intelligencer's circulation over the same period rose from 186,000 to 196,000.

The Blethen family, which controls a 51 percent share of the Times (Knight Ridder holds the balance), foresaw some of these problems when the joint agency was negotiated. That's one reason the contract was made for 50 years, unusually long at the time. A shorter contract might have left the Times in a weakened bargaining position when renewal approached.

The same concerns also prompted Gannett to insist on a 100-year contract for its evening Detroit News and Knight Ridder's Detroit Free Press when their joint agreement was signed in 1986.

But in Seattle, the problems inherent in afternoon publication have accelerated: All four of the suburban dailies that compete with the Times now publish in the morning (two were afternoon papers when the joint agency formed). Moreover, market surveys conducted by the Times showed an overwhelming preference for morning newspapers.

Now, the Blethen family could have let matters run their course, being assured that until the year 2033 the paper would continue to get 68 percent of the joint agency's profit, no matter how weakened the Times might have become. (The Post-Intelligencer, owned by Hearst, gets the remaining 32 percent.)

But the Blethen family is committed to securing a strong future for the Times, which it has owned for more than 100 years. It concluded it was worth giving up some profit to ensure the Times' health, according to Publisher Frank A. Blethen.

Under the new deal negotiated with Hearst, the Times' share of the profits drops to 60 percent, and the contract will be extended 50 years, to 2083. The switch of the Times to morning distribution will occur sometime over the next two years.

The Post-Intelligencer will benefit by having a greater share of the profit to spend on its looming morning battle with the Times. And the profits are likely to increase more rapidly than before, because cutting down to one production and distribution cycle on weekdays will save a lot of money.

Maybe the Seattle agency model could be mirrored at the remaining joint agencies to save honored but fading afternoon papers. Maybe Gannett could give up its 50 percent profit share in Detroit to save the News by putting it head-to-head with the Free Press.

Ah well, I suspect Seattle will remain unique.