U.S. Attorney General asked to inspect the proposed closure of the Albuquerque Tribune
By Christie Chisholm
As the Albuquerque Tribune lies on its deathbed, there are still a few supporters intent on finding a cure.
Marvin Gladstone is a retired attorney and board member of Friends of the Albuquerque Tribune (FOAT), the nonprofit that is trying to save the paper. Gladstone sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office Monday, Jan. 7, asking the office to review the proposed closure or sale of the Tribune. He's arguing its closure could create an illegal monopoly.
The Tribune has existed for 74 of its 84 years under a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with the Albuquerque Journal. Through the agreement, the Tribune shares advertising staff, production and distribution with the Journal. In exchange, the Journal shares in some of the Tribune’s profits. The agreement is the oldest in the country.
The JOA is due to expire in 2022, but the Tribune’s owner, the E.W. Scripps Publishing Company, and the Journal are terminating the agreement early. And, as Scripps announced last August, it will either close or sell the paper without the benefit of the JOA.
The problem with this, said Gladstone in his letter, is that Scripps said it's selling the paper due to a two-decade-long downward spiral of failing profits. The JOA was the one financially valuable thing the paper had, and without it, said Gladstone, the Tribune is “virtually unsellable.”
Because terminating the JOA makes selling the paper so difficult, Gladstone and FOAT are questioning whether Scripps truly intends to sell. Tim Stautberg, Scripps spokesperson, gave no comment on the letter or Scripps' motives for terminating the JOA.
Another element at play is the fact that the JOA between the Tribune and Journal was illegal for 37 years after it was formed, according to antitrust laws, which restricted such agreements. But in 1970, the Newspaper Preservation Act was passed, which allowed JOAs in the interest of preserving independent editorial voices in areas that faced the threat of losing one or more of their newspapers. In other words, the JOA between Albuquerque’s two dailies became legal for the sole reason of keeping a diversity of voices in local media.
Economically speaking, because the Journal and Tribune operate out of the same advertising staff, not much will change in terms of financial competition among the city’s remaining papers. Still, with the potential loss of the Tribune, the Journal stands to own an editorial monopoly as the city’s only daily paper.
“The JOA was set up to allow us to have a two-newspaper town and to protect the public,” says Ted Cloak, FOAT member. “[Scripps] shouldn’t be allowed to abrogate without good reason.”
Because of the nature of the JOA, Gladstone and other FOAT members question whether its early termination is legal under the circumstances. Cloak says the Attorney General’s Office has not yet responded to the organization’s request.
In the meantime, FOAT is trying to find other ways to keep the Tribune alive, such as turning it into an online newspaper or running it as a lab out of the incoming Media Arts Collaborative Charter School. Cloak says the organization is still doing research on these possibilities.
Another offer by PR duo Tom Carroll and Douglas Turner to buy the paper is also still in the works, says Scripps' Stautberg.
The Tribune may be on its deathbed, but it's still fighting for its life. Phill Casaus, editor of the paper, says although the newsroom's staff is smaller since the sale was first announced, a dedicated team of reporters remains, choosing to put out a "viable, solid, trendsetting newspaper" as long as they're allowed. "It's been a very tough time for the newspaper. I'm not kidding anyone," he says. "But these folks can be proud of what they're doing."
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