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The Afternoon Newspaper War
Marvin Kalb and Nicholas Kralev
As CNN's twentieth anniversary this year celebrates the wonders the twenty-four-hour news cycle has brought to modern-day journalism, the speed on the information superhighway has claimed more victims from the dying breed of afternoon newspapers. But while hundreds of afternoon papers folded quietly in the United States over the past half century as their circulation dwindled and profits vanished, three audacious publications have been defying for more than a year the long trend that a Seattle Times editorial writer once called "death in the afternoon."
The battle for the Seattle Times, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the San Francisco Examiner started with a noble cause--preserving editorial voices whose death would leave three of the country's largest cities with a newspaper monopoly. Unions, subscribers, advertisers, and public officials were naturally unhappy, worried that advertising and newsstand prices would go up and political endorsements would weigh more heavily on public opinion. The owners of the money-losing operations were supposed to be in a good position, with a decent amount of cash from the sales and free of previous trouble.
In the age of overlapping political, economic, and public interests, however, the rules of the game have apparently changed. It turns out that it is not that easy to shut down a newspaper today. There are many more people with high stakes in a newspaper's survival than those who make it and those who read it. In spite of the frantic commercialization of writing, at a time when the click of a mouse is enough to make an article or a book available to millions of readers around the world, the current newspaper war is much more about content than money. This is particularly true in Seattle, where editors and reporters at both the Times and the Post-Intelligencer admit that the Times' conversion to mornings last March has resulted in enviable competition that produces much better reporting and writing (Paterno 2000). The situation in Honolulu and San Francisco has not been nearly as smooth--antitrust lawsuits there have turned the fight into more of a circus--but the two cities seem determined to endure whatever it takes to preserve their second papers.
Even if they succeed, however, and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the San Francisco Examiner continue to exist, they will both become morning papers--this is what will save them this time around. Three decades ago, it was the Newspaper Preservation Act (NPA), which Congress enacted to allow newspapers [End Page 1] to enter into joint operating agreements (JOAs), that was intended to preserve independent editorial voices in American journalism. Today's "warriors" did just that--they shared production facilities, advertising, and even profits, while remaining bitter editorial rivals with their morning partners. But since 1970, eleven JOAs have been terminated early. In Miami in 1998, Cox and Knight Ridder renegotiated their JOA, which resulted in Cox closing the News in exchange for a share of the Herald's profits, which Cox will continue to receive until 2021. Also in 1998, the McClatchy Co. paid $1.2 billion for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a record for an independent newspaper. The Indianapolis News shut down in 1999 after 130 years of publication. In the last ten years, the paper's average daily circulation had plummeted from 111,000 to 33,175.1
Statistics of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) show that circulation numbers for evening papers have dropped from 32 million in 1950 to a mere 11 million in 1997. In 1950, there were 1,450 afternoon newspapers and 322 morning papers. In 1998, only 781 afternoon papers had survived, while the number of the morning papers had risen to 721. (See Table 1 and Figure 1.) In 1985, for the first time, the circulation of morning papers (36 million) surpassed that of evening papers (26 million). Since 1975, the circulation of afternoon publications has fallen 68 percent...