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Cover Story: The Light Dims

After almost 130 years, The Cincinnati Post faces its final months

By Kevin Osborne · February 21st, 2007 · Cover Story
  The corporate motto for Cincinnati-based media chain E.W. Scripps Co. is
Geoff Raker

The corporate motto for Cincinnati-based media chain E.W. Scripps Co. is "Give light and the people will find their own way," which the lighthouse logo has come to symbolize. The lighthouse can be seen on the front page of every issue of The Post.

Click here for The Post's full operations timeline.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, a major Cincinnati institution with a long, storied history will shut down its operations later this year, the victim of changing American lifestyles and corporate media consolidation.

Although many people nowadays probably aren't even aware it still exists, The Cincinnati Post likely will cease publication in December after almost 130 years in business under various names.

Since 1977, The Post has operated under a joint operating agreement (JOA) with its larger competitor, The Cincinnati Enquirer. The 30-year deal allowed the newspapers to split some expenses so both could remain in operation -- but the JOA expires later this year, and The Enquirer announced in 2004 that it wouldn't renew the agreement.

With shrinking readership and declining advertising revenues, media industry analysts say it no longer makes financial sense for The Post's owner, E.W. Scripps Co., to keep the newspaper alive. Scripps executives have said it would consider all options regarding the paper's future but have offered a series of early severance packages to Post employees over the past few years and significantly reduced its coverage area.

"Scripps is continuing to look at opportunities in this market," says Mike Philipps, The Post's editor. "No decision has been made, and any further comment would be premature at this time."

Others, however, believe the newspaper's fate has long been sealed.

"My heart makes me want to think there is some type of survival strategy, but my head tells me otherwise," says Barry Horstman, a former Post employee who held various positions at the paper off and on for about 30 years before leaving to become an editor at The Las Vegas Sun in 2005. "It's really a Dead Man Walking type of situation."

Mark Fitzgerald, editor-at-large for Editor & Publisher, a journalism industry trade publication, notes that it's fairly typical for the lesser partner in JOAs to go out of business once the deal lapses.

"I often compare the JOA situation to a mail-order marriage," Fitzgerald says. "It's all about power on one side and desperation on the other side."

Rumors swirling in local business circles suggest The Post's last edition will be printed on Friday, Dec. 7 -- a day that will live in infamy for local news aficionados for reasons other than the Pearl Harbor attack.

What we're losing
The Post's current feeble status is a far cry from the esteemed position it once held in the community.

During its heyday, The Post championed the plight of Cincinnati's working class and helped break the tight grip that the corrupt political boss system held on City Hall until the 1920s, transforming Cincinnati's government in the process.

In 1924, The Post was the sole local newspaper to support an amendment pushed by the Charter Committee -- Cincinnati's de facto third political party -- to switch to a city manager form of government and end the influence of Boss Cox's political machine that controlled city council.

"It was a beacon of hope at a time when a lot of people were kowtowed by the political leadership in town," Horstman says.

While The Enquirer was widely viewed as a conservative newspaper that was published for bankers and the downtown business crowd -- and reflected their interests in its editorial content -- The Post was seen as a scrappier, more liberal publication read mostly by factory workers and laborers, particularly on Cincinnati's West side and in Northern Kentucky.

Bob Kraft -- who served as copy editor, news editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor at The Post over a 24-year period and is now a public relations consultant -- says the newspaper's reputation was well-known.

"When I came here in 1977, the shorthand at the time was that The Post was the blue collar paper and The Enquirer was the white shoe paper, a mouthpiece for the establishment," Kraft says.

For large portions of its publishing history, The Post was the most-read newspaper among the Queen City's competing dailies, which included The Enquirer and The Cincinnati Times-Star, which eventually merged with The Post in 1958.

(Follow the timeline across the bottom of each page for more detail about The Post's history.)

While many journalists and local historians mourn the impending loss for professional or nostalgic reasons, the closure has broader implications for Cincinnati as it joins a growing list of cities nationwide served by one daily newspaper.

Media watchers say the trend means that the public has fewer choices for obtaining information and that a select few corporate media giants like the Gannett Co., The Enquirer's Virginia-based owner, continue to strengthen their hold on the marketplace.

"In some ways, it will hurt the region's vibrancy. There will be one less challenger for the morning paper, and constant competition keeps everyone's skills honed," says Raymond "Buzz" Buse, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce's public relations manager who briefly worked as a Post reporter years ago. "It will be a heartbreaker for people in Cincinnati who enjoy quality journalism."

Horstman agrees, adding, "I don't know of any time when the public is better served by a lack of competition. The fact of the matter is no matter how good of a paper you are, you're not going to be firing on all eight cylinders as much as you would with someone looking over your shoulder."

Some industry insiders also have speculated that The Post's closure could mean that the venerable E.W. Scripps Co. might move its corporate headquarters out of Cincinnati sometime in the near future after more than a century located here.

Scripps executives insist that's not the case but -- with the company moving out of the newspaper publishing business and focusing on cable TV networks such as HGTV and the Food Network -- business analysts say it makes sense that the company could move to its large, relatively new television production facility in Knoxville, Tenn., where many of its networks are based.

"E.W. Scripps located in Cincinnati because of The Post," Buse says. "It's a very important company for Cincinnati because it lends a lot of business leadership here. For the Scripps Co. to have one less emotional connection to Cincinnati is not a good thing for our community."

The smell of the ink
A list of The Post's local and national alumni reads like a Who's Who of print journalism.

People who have worked at The Post over the years include the late Michael Kelly, later Atlantic Monthly's editor-at-large and a Washington Post columnist who died in Iraq in 2003; the late Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who wrote a controversial series about possible links between the CIA and crack cocaine trafficking; Tom Kunkel, dean at the University of Maryland's journalism school and president of American Journalism Review; Bob Mong, executive editor of The Dallas Morning News; Ken Bunting, associate publisher of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Henry Holcomb, president of Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia; Bob Benjamin, editor of a group of Maryland papers owned by The Washington Post; and Polk Laffoon IV, widely considered as one of Cincinnati's best writers.

Many local reporters and others also worked at The Post at one time or another. They include three writers contributing to this package of stories: Bob Driehaus, Lew Moores and me (I covered City Hall and local politics for The Post for seven years, ending in 2005).

Among the many high school and college interns who have worked at the newspaper is former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece.

Horstman first worked for The Post as a weekend sports correspondent while in high school in the early 1970s, covering Western Hills High School's football and basketball teams. He joined the staff full-time a few years later, while The Post still occupied the former Times-Star building at 800 Broadway, an ornate Art Deco structure built by the Taft family.

"It always reminded me of The Daily Planet from the Superman TV show," Horstman says. "If you were in the newsroom when the printing press started down below, you would feel this gentle rumble to the building and, depending on where you were standing, smell ink wafting into the newsroom. It made me think I made the right career choice. I was in heaven."

Some of the blame for The Post's fate can be placed squarely on Scripps, which agreed in the 1977 JOA to remain an afternoon newspaper at a time when they clearly were on the wane. The Post also insisted on continuing a long Scripps tradition of publishing six days a week but not on Sunday.

"Cincinnati is not the only city that's lost its afternoon paper," Horstman says. "The days of factory workers coming home in the early afternoon after work and hitting the easy chair to read the paper are long gone."

Fitzgerald adds, "This JOA kept The Post in the afternoon and prevented true competition. It also prevented another more interested newspaper from coming into Cincinnati. If The Enquirer had been all by itself, who's to say a company wouldn't have chosen to come to Cincinnati to compete? Certainly no company is coming to a city like Cincinnati to be the third paper."

Continuing a trend that began more than 40 years ago, newspaper readership -- like reading in general -- is declining nationwide, first sparked by the introduction of television and quickened even more by the rise of the Internet. As a result, most U.S. cities no longer have the market to support two daily newspapers outside of the very largest metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Strangling the circulation
Newspapers, however, historically have served a unique role in American culture. The Founding Fathers, after all, viewed freedom of the press and the public's access to information as important enough to include in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, taking precedence before other rights such as the right to keep and bear arms, due process under the law and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

It's not a coincidence that many Revolutionary War era figures either were regular contributors to newspapers of their day or publishers themselves; Ben Franklin, for example, was once publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

With that historical role in mind, Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1970. The law allows competing newspapers in a single market to form a JOA if they meet certain conditions.

Generally, JOAs are designed to help keep a faltering business from failing outright and prevent a monopoly in a particular industry by allowing each party in the deal to share certain expenses but maintain separate operations, circumventing federal anti-trust laws.

JOAs are most common in the newspaper field but also are used in other industries like the oil and healthcare sectors.

In most newspaper JOAs, the competing dailies typically share a printing press and some advertising revenue and designate one party, usually the larger paper, as responsible for circulation and distribution duties. Reporting and editorial functions are kept separate, as are profits.

(For more on the joint operating agreement between The Post and The Enquirer, see "The Deal That Changed Everything" on page 24.)

Fitzgerald calls JOAs "bad public policy."

"Cincinnati's JOA is very typical," he says. "JOAs claim that they're preserving editorial voices, but the reality is they only preserve editorial voices that for some reason they don't want to compete against. That's why there was no JOA in Dallas, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. In some of those cases, the weaker papers asked the stronger ones to start a JOA and they were turned down. They were going out of business anyway.

"So the JOA is never applied across the board. It's usually applied in very cynical situations where a paper is tired of bleeding itself trying to compete. Seattle and Denver are perfect examples of that. And Cincinnati was a perfect example, because when the JOA started, the afternoon paper was still strong enough to compete. If this JOA were truly about preserving an editorial voice, someone would try to keep The Post alive."

Other Post supporters concur, noting that allowing The Enquirer to handle its circulation duties was a mistake.

"There are a number of factors about why it's closing, and not all were under The Post's control," Horstman says. "One major reason is the fact you're being marketed by your competitor. What incentive is there for The Enquirer to aggressively market The Post?"

Horstman relates a common complaint of recent years: When he returned to Cincinnati in the early 1990s after a stint at The Los Angeles Times, he tried calling to get a Post subscription. The person answering the call resisted and tried to sell an Enquirer subscription instead, relenting only when Horstman became insistent.

"Over time, that had a drip, drip, drip effect on circulation," he says.

At the beginning of the 1990s, The Post had a daily circulation of about 100,000 copies. By decade's end, that had dropped to about 40,000.

"You simply don't drive down circulation by almost 75 percent in a decade just due to market forces," Horstman says. "You have to suspect it was by design, to some degree."

Over the years as well, many Post news racks around the city no longer contained current copies of the newspaper or were left empty, making the paper difficult to find for readers. At the same time, Scripps began selling its other newspaper holdings nationwide and investing heavily in cable TV networks.

Critics describe the situation as a case of benign neglect by a company no longer interested in the publishing field.

Dan Andriacco, now spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, worked at The Post first as a copyboy in 1969 and came on board full-time in late 1973, first as a reporter and later an editor. He left in 1997 to join the archdiocese.

Watching The Post flounder over the past few years has been painful, Andriacco says, likening it to seeing a parent suffer from Parkinson's or some other debilitating disease.

"I can't imagine what it must be like to work there now," he says. "The people are putting up a valiant effort, but the fact is it's a shell of what it once was. I find it difficult to go over there anymore. I really don't do it anymore -- I find it too sad."

Still, some current staffers say the looming closure allows them the freedom to pursue the types of articles they want to cover.

"(The closure) certainly is a factor, but it wasn't as bad as you might expect because at least you know what's coming," says Stephenie Steitzer, a reporter who covered Northern Kentucky politics for the newspaper for three years until leaving this month for a job in Louisville. "There's a lot of unease in many, many newsrooms across the country. Everyone deals with it differently, but I kind of liked it. We weren't beholden to reader surveys and focus groups. We could do the type of journalism we were interested in and think is important."

Readers benefit from having two competing daily newspapers, Steitzer says, comparing a recent story she wrote about a school bus crash in Walton, Ky., with The Enquirer's version.

"We had two totally different stories that took different angles, and readers were better off for it," she says. "They got a more complete picture."

Many Post alumni remember their time at the newspaper fondly years, even decades, after leaving.

"My feelings about The Post are kind of like how you feel about a first girlfriend," Horstman says. "Maybe you always carry tender feelings for it no matter where you go."

LEW MOORES, JOHN FOX and BEN L. KAUFMAN contributed to this article.


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