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EDITORIAL: JOA law not meant to burden viable publications

In the ongoing legal wrangling between the Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun, it’s worth remembering one salient fact: Were it not for this publication, the Sun would have burned out 30 years ago.

In 1989 — well before the current upheaval in the media landscape — the Sun was a self-described “failing” newspaper that would have folded had it not entered into a joint operating arrangement allowing it to piggyback on the Review-Journal for business, circulation and advertising purposes while maintaining an independent opinion and news-gathering operation.

Three decades later, the Sun falsely accuses the Review-Journal of attempting to drive it out of business and censor its viewpoint because the latter seeks to end an arrangement that can charitably be described as obsolete, given the massive shifts in reader behavior and advertising strategies that have transformed the information business since the JOA was last revisited in 2005.

On Wednesday, Clark County District Court Judge Timothy Williams put on hold a state case involving this dispute until a related federal lawsuit can be heard.

In the meantime, the Review-Journal will continue to publish each day an eight-page Sun insert, an inferior product that fails to live up to the standards required by the joint operating arrangement. The insert typically includes only a smattering of local content, instead offering Sun and Review-Journal readers days-old commentaries, editorials and news features from The New York Times. The Sun publishes breaking news and other content almost exclusively online, which undermines the print product and the point of the JOA.

The idea that the Review-Journal, by attempting to better position itself to compete in a media environment evolving at lightning speed, is hoping to silence the Sun’s voice or monopolize the local market by severing its relationship with the Sun withers under serious scrutiny.

There is nothing that prevents the Sun’s ownership from unbolting the training wheels and publishing, marketing and distributing a print product to those who wish to purchase it. Even in the absence of the daily insert, the Sun will still maintain and promote a website where it will be free to offer its viewpoint loudly and clearly on issues of the day.

Likewise, Las Vegas consumers today enjoy access to media options and content delivery systems that were unheard of just a generation past. This has created a treasure trove of riches for readers seeking news and information or searching for a diversity of perspectives.

Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1970, hoping to ensure competing publications in two-newspaper towns. The theory underlying the law was that news and information sources were inherently limited and communities would be better off having a diversity of editorial viewpoints that more than one newspaper might provide. The act, however, has been overtaken by the steady march of progress.

Technological developments have since rendered moot concerns about a dearth of news sources or media outlets abusing their market power to the detriment of communities, readers or advertisers. Nor was the law all that successful. The great majority of joint operating arrangements were dissolved well before the shift in consumer behavior that followed the debut of the smartphone, social media and streaming.

Since 2004, more than 1,400 U.S. papers have ceased publication. Many others have laid off workers or cut back on print editions while struggling to control costs and exploring new business models that might help them survive as technology erodes the traditional relationships among readers, advertisers and publications. The Newspaper Preservation Act was surely never intended to burden viable publications as they strive to meet the challenges of a dynamic media marketplace.

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