September 23, 1977: Two Newspapers, One Joint Operating Agreement
When E.W. Scripps Co. bought Cincinnati’s No. 3 daily newspaper, The Times-Star, in 1958 and folded it into its afternoon paper, The Post, the company sat atop the local media heap. It had previously taken control of The Enquirer, published in the mornings and on Sunday, and launched WCPO Channel 9 (named for The Cincinnati Post) and two WCPO radio stations. A U.S. Justice Department antitrust lawsuit broke up the party in the late ’60s, forcing the company to divest one of the newspapers. Scripps chose poorly.
The company went with its heart by keeping The Post, founded by Edward Willis Scripps in 1881, though the finances looked good, too, thanks to 50,000 more daily subscribers than The Enquirer. Yet American life was rapidly changing in the ’60s, and the working public switched allegiances from afternoon papers to more timely TV evening news. Less than a decade later, The Post would declare itself failing and cling to The Enquirer for life support.
On September 23, 1977, Scripps and Enquirer ownership agreed to one of the nation’s first Joint Operating Agreements, created by the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 to maintain competing newsrooms in cities while combining their business functions. The 30-year JOA put The Enquirer in control of all advertising sales, printing, circulation, and financial duties for both papers, with strict daily allotments of editorial space for each entity that locked in The Enquirer as the larger and more influential paper. Each year’s profits would be split 60/40 in favor of The Enquirer up to $10.8 million, and 80/20 beyond that.
Did the JOA allow The Enquirer to micromanage and slowly starve its main competitor, or did it keep The Post’s editorial viewpoint and jobs alive for one more generation? Yes and yes. Enquirer staff never went out of their way to sell ad space in The Post, renew its home delivery subscriptions, or fill its sidewalk boxes, so it was certainly no surprise when, at the deal’s expiration, Scripps pulled the plug. The final Cincinnati Post was published on December 31, 2007. JOAs would also run their course in Columbus, Denver, Honolulu, Nashville, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis, leaving those cities—like us—with one daily newspaper.
Scripps maintains a high-profile news presence in its home town with WCPO, but recently sold off all of its remaining newspapers and now focuses on TV and digital content—as do most consumers. The Enquirer sold an average of 200,000 copies each weekday in 2007, but by 2017 that number was down to 85,000; meanwhile, its Cincinnati.com news site gets more than 100,000 people visiting per day.
The number of working journalists in Cincinnati has shrunk substantially since 1977, thanks as much to new technologies and changing consumer habits as to business decisions made by the city’s media giants. But the JOA’s arrival removed any incentive for either newspaper to innovate in order to beat the competition, and that lack of creativity certainly left them more susceptible to the digital media onslaught that’s turned the journalism world upside down. The Post is dead. Long live The Enquirer!