Central Valley JOA?

JGFitzgerald -- March 30th, 2009

The Staunton News-Leader reports it will lay off its press crew and print the paper in Harrisonburg. Many big-city papers a generation ago were saved by Joint Operating Agreements, antitrust-exempt business partnerships that let papers merge advertising, circulation and production operations while keeping independent newsrooms. As some of the papers that were saved by such JOAs, Detroit and Denver among them, begin to downsize and fold, one wonders if this is the future of the smaller newspapers that are, so far, surviving.

25 Responses to “Central Valley JOA?”

  1. Jeff says:

    Sure. Revenues are down everywhere… without top line growth, which isn’t happening, the only option is to cut costs. Probably a stop-gap measure, though, since it’s awfully hard to save your way to profitability.

  2. In the comments of that story, Tracy writes, “Hopefully things will turn around soon for all of us but especially for those of us in the media business.”

    It’s time to stop hoping and start innovating.

  3. Emmy says:

    Amen Brent. That’s true for everyone. Too many businesses think they can keep going on old ways and that is rarely the case.

  4. Jeff says:

    Here’s a question since this is a news blog… if you ran the DNR, for example, what would you do in terms of innovation, change, etc, to turn things around? (From a business point of view.) Keeping in mind that “better” content can’t be the only answer….

  5. Jeff says:

    I’m sure a lot of you are aware of it, but the blog site Newspaper Death Watch (sorry, don’t know how to create a link in a comment; just search and you’ll find it) seems to take a pretty comprehensive look at the struggles the newspaper business faces.

  6. I read Jeff Jarvis and Jim Romenesko.

    Jeff, I can’t give you a straight answer, because I would probably make a terrible newspaper manager. I wouldn’t know to deal with an ever-shrinking budget like that. I wouldn’t want the task of laying people off all the time.

    If I ran a news organization, it wouldn’t be a paper; it would be entirely online. And it would be small, and light on its feet. It might not even have an office — if you have free wireless access points, laptops and iPhones, why would you need an office? It would make no distinction between the mediums of text, photo, audio, and video. And, perhaps most importantly, it wouldn’t rely on ad revenue to operate.

  7. Brad says:

    Brent — I’m curious about your ideal news organization. If not ad revenue, then how would it get the resources to operate. Certainly not by charging for content — we already missed that boat.

  8. JGFitzgerald says:

    If a thousand people would read a news story that cost $200 to produce, the problem becomes a micro-payment process that can handle a quarter. Itunes got us to ninety-nine, so we’re talking about a process that takes us the last seventy-four cents, if you will. So will people pay for two news stories what they used to pay for obits, editorials, comics, classifieds, sports agate, and a pair of mealy-mouthed corrections? Maybe if they’ve never paid for the latter and the former is going on their phone bill.

  9. I don’t think news orgs should be for-profit. I realize that most are, but that’s not a good enough reason. Ad revenue could be there, but it would be supplemental to grants and donations.

    Just look at where the Knight Foundation is putting their grant money now. MinnPost.com is blazing some new trails in the nonprofit, ad-selling realm. Also, Spot.US is allowing readers to directly fund specific reports.

    IMO, websites like that are the silver lining to the dark cloud that’s been gathering over print journalism for years.

  10. JGFitzgerald says:

    And a side note: Chicago now has no non-bankrupt dailies.

  11. cook says:

    “I don’t think news orgs should be for-profit.” Fascinating. Do you also think that “health care” should be not-for-profit? What about prisons? Banking? Blogging? Lawn care? Movies? Adoption? Retail clothing? Food?

    It’s always interesting to watch someone draw that “should” line. And at what point does reality enter the picture?

  12. The reality is that many small-town, locally owned publications are non-profits these days, even if they’re not designed to be.

    I’m not into “shoulds” but I am really into “coulds.” Could a local non-profit news organization work here? Maybe, just maybe!

  13. Justin C says:

    I’m not sure how feasible a non-profit news agency would be. If you are funded through a grant that means you have a stakeholder, no matter how impartial the granting agency pretends to be.

    I think the answer lies in quality in-depth LOCAL reporting. At this point you can get any news with any spin on it you want for free all over the internet. If a small local paper tries to compete on those terms there is no business model that is sustainable.

    Instead local papers need to offer more of their unique service (in-depth reporting on local issues) and less fluff. Once upon a time the customer wanted the fluff from the small local paper, but not anymore. If the DNR could really give me some insight into what is going on around this town instead of regurgitated quotes, I would be willing to pay a subscription fee (online, print, or both).

  14. Justin, ask most Americans what news source they trust most, and they will likely say NPR & PBS; both non-profits. But I agree with you about local coverage.

    Deona, I certainly hope so. You would just have to assume that most people reading it wouldn’t be willing to pay for it — instead it would mostly be funded by grants and a few wealthy community benefactors, supplemented by some ads.

    Cook, to answer your question, no. I don’t think jails should be for profit. Nor health care. See Switzerland. But then again, this conversation is not about jails or health care. Your examples are apples to oranges. I’m not saying commercial news should be outlawed. I’m saying I don’t think it’s the best business model for that specific field.

  15. David Miller says:

    And it is obvious (Ie Iraq cheer leading, etc) that commercial news is incompetent at the job of Fourth Estate.

  16. rachel says:

    A short TEDTalk was posted today on the question “Can good design save the newspaper?” Jacek Utco’s redesign of several newspapers in Eastern Europe actually led to an increase (!) in circulation. But I suspect he will eventually add this idea to his list of ways that newspaper publishers are merely buying themselves time.

    He acknowledges that there are no practical reasons for newspapers to survive, and that’s probably true. Then again, since when did people limit themselves to activities that are practical and efficient…?

  17. Jeff says:

    While doing research for an unrelated project I stumbled on a couple articles relevant to this discussion. (Sorry in advance for not knowing how to embed a link in text.)

    One is from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s blog, discussing why businesses – at least sports teams – need coverage, and he’s willing to “pay” for it (http://blogmaverick.com/2008/12/24/why-pro-sports-need-newspapers). The other is from Time, looking at costs/revenue/consolidation (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,860829,00.html).

    Both are decent reads —

  18. Justin C says:

    I think the physical medium of the newspaper is destined to eventually fail. My concern is how many news agencies will survive the transition to other mediums.

    My concern stems from the need for in depth reporting. TV news lives on sound bites, and that’s what the customer wanted. What papers have given us as citizens is more long term reporting. The stories that take a few days, weeks, months to put together and break with confidence to the public. This is a service that bloggers will not provide and TV cannot provide.

    As for the profit standing Brent, I agree that PBS & NPR as well as other non-profit news agencies provide the best quality on their level. My concern is that the business model would not translate to small markets. I think there is a profit potential in the small markets. The problem is that means local papers fill in a MUCH smaller niche then they used to, and most seem to prefer bankruptcy to complete reorganization.

    All the more reason for us to cherish and aid resources like hburgnews!

  19. seth says:

    that is an interesting study brent, but i would suggest that any group one polled who indicated that %61 have the slightest idea what the newshour with jim lehrer is probably not a representative sample.

    i also like npr and pbs as their news coverage probably among the most objective you’ll find. with regards to npr though, i’d say that it’s important to distinguish between news and shows like on point or fresh air which have great content, but not necessarily the most objective treatment of said content.

  20. Deb SF says:

    From Clay Shirkey’s blog: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/ He’s done a bunch of recent pieces on newspapers, including ones that dismiss I-Tunes and micropayments as funding models, and

    2 snips from a terrific article:

    Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

    I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.


    Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

    When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work. For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

  21. To add to the substantial print industry woes, today the Richmond Times-Dispatch laid off 59 employees and eliminated 31 positions. Style Weekly in Richmond — http://www.styleweekly.com — is reporting the names of some of the well-known writers who were let go. Anybody paying attention could see this coming but that doesn’t make it any less sad. I feel kinda sick to my stomach.

  22. Thanks for posting that, Deb. This is the most succinct thing I’ve read in months:

    “When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

  23. JGFitzgerald says:

    FYI: Editor and Publisher considers alternatives, including the non-profit model.

  24. JGFitzgerald says:

    Now there’s a bill to make newspapers officially non-profit.

  25. JGFitzgerald says:


    At the Petersburg newspaper, sometimes a writer would come to the press room to watch, often after writing a particularly good or difficult story, and when the first bundle of papers went into the first carrier’s rusty station wagon and rattled off down the street, the writer knew that nobody could take it back.

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