DETROIT, MI — The sudden merger this week of two newspapers in Charleston, West Virginia, was big media news in that city. It also resonated here in Detroit, more than 350 miles away, for one major reason: The Motor City is one of the few two-paper towns left in the US, and that small group is now even smaller. As Charleston’s Gazette and Daily Mail become the Gazette-Mail, is that a sign that Detroit’s News and Free Press might soon follow the same path?
If that’s the eventual outcome–and that’s still a big if–it might not be the worst outcome for journalism here. But it would likely come with a cost.
Though editorially independent, the Gazette and Daily Mail have been linked since 1958, when their business and production arms were combined in a joint operating agreement. After the family-owned Gazette’s parent company moved in 2004 to take control of the Daily Mail, the US Department of Justice filed an anti-trust lawsuit to preserve the competition between the two papers. This led to a 2010 settlement that required the Daily Mail to continue publishing as a separate paper for five years. That settlement expired on July 19—the very day that Charleston staffers learned that the merger was imminent. The new paper launched less than 24 hours later.
An unsigned column in the first edition of the new Gazette-Mail assured readers that the merger represents “a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia,” and promised “increased resources” for investigative reporting and a bolstered online presence. At the same time, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that the total staff size will drop, and all employees will have to reapply for jobs. One thing that won’t change: the merged paper will still publish “two completely independent editorial pages,” representing the Gazette’s more liberal outlook and the Daily Mail’s more conservative view.
In reply to questions from CJR, Susan Shumate, the publisher of the new paper, said via email: “The combining of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette newsrooms to form the Charleston Gazette-Mail is a step we took reluctantly to maintain a level of high quality journalism due to unique challenges that we confront in the Charleston, West Virginia, area market.” Shumate had assumed the publisher’s role at the Gazette on June 27.
If the merger is a sign of the general state of the newspaper business, it is also an indicator that the experiment with joint operating agreements, or JOAs, may be nearing an end. Conceived as a way to preserve diverse media voices by allowing rival papers in a single city to share back-end operations and cuts costs, and authorized under federal law, there are now only about five JOAs left in the nation—down from a peak of 26, according to Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute.
Typically, the smaller circulation paper continues to lose readers as “people go with the winner,” Edmonds said, and advertisers increasingly choose the bigger paper for their ads. This results in a downward spiral that portends the end of a JOA, either through a merger or the closure of the smaller paper. (There are variations on this trend, however, as in Salt Lake City, where the Deseret News is gaining on its larger rival, the Salt Lake Tribune.)
That’s one of the reasons events in Charleston attracted notice in Detroit, where the News and Free Press are partners in one of the few remaining JOAs. The Detroit deal began in 1989, much later than most others, and “there was a big stink at the time,” Edmonds said, because people felt that it would be a “license to print money” at what would be a single paper in all but name. Those expectations didn’t pan out—neither the money-making nor, for the most part, the editorial consolidation. (The papers do publish a joint Sunday edition, which is dominated by the larger Free Press.) Today, the Freep holds a 95 percent stake in their combined business operations, and the News holds 5 percent. The JOA includes an early termination clause that goes into effect on Aug. 3: either paper may opt out of the agreement early if the partnership sustains three consecutive years of financial losses.
While there are plenty of differences in the details, James David Dickson, op-ed editor at the News, said that he can see the parallels between the Detroit and Charleston papers—and, possibly, their parallel trajectories. Both the News and Free Press, he said, have high quality reporters and strong local sports sections; the key difference between them is the editorial pages—generally left-leaning in the Freep and right-leaning in the News, with notable personalities in each. He can imagine a future where the papers are combined, while maintaining distinct opinion pages, just as Charleston is doing.
“It’s the only thing that really separates the papers,” Dickson said. “Do you have a Nolan Finley, a Mitch Albom, a Stephen Henderson? We used to have Charlie LeDuff. It’s these names on the opinion page of the newspaper that make people say I’m a Free Press reader or I’m a News reader.”
On the other hand, Dickson notes that a merger like this doesn’t come from a place of strength, and that alarms him. “I’m interested in what the headcount will be like [at a merged paper] two years down the road or five years down the road, and specifically my chair in the headcount,” he said. “Do you need two op-ed editors? A battle to the death is more likely.”
When, or whether, that day might arrive in Detroit remains unclear. But the details of Detroit’s JOA have attracted attention in the local press, especially as Digital First Media, parent company of the News, has searched without success for a buyer.
Bill Shea at Crain’s Detroit Business has closely followed the business story of the local papers. He described the News as being “functionally a Gannett paper” already, given Gannett’s dominant stake in Michigan.com, the company that operates their business partnership. The Detroit JOA, he said, “artificially props up” the two newspapers, and there are advertisers who believe that they reach different audiences through the different publications. “But will people who read the News automatically stop reading if it merges with the Free Press?” Shea said. “I don’t think so, by and large.”
It’s notable that the Charleston merger happened just as the DOJ settlement expired; the Detroit papers aren’t likely to go the Charleston route if it means wrangling with the DOJ, Shea said. In 2013, a lawsuit from the DOJ’s antitrust division resulted in Gannett being compelled to sell a television station in St. Louis, on its way to the DOJ approving the company’s $2.2 billion purchase of Belo Corporation. And even if the early termination clause could be invoked, the papers’ owners may be focused on other priorities.
At this point, ultimately, it’s speculation. While executives decide what to do next, Shea said, the papers and their staff are essentially “waiting in the penalty box.”
“Whatever befalls the News and Free Press, reporters and editors will be the very last people to know about it,” Shea said.