While awaiting a decision from Attorney General Edwin Meese III on whether Detroit's two daily newspapers will be allowed to enter into a joint operating agreement that would keep both papers alive and profitable, the owner of the Detroit Free Press has hired one of Meese's former advisers to help promote the agreement.
Knight-Ridder, which owns the Free Press, has hired Timmons & Co. Inc. while awaiting word from Meese on whether the Free Press and The Detroit News, owned by Gannett Co. Inc., could merge all but editorial functions under a provision of the Newspaper Preservation Act.
The firm, headed by William Timmons, includes Tom C. Korologos, who helped Meese in his 1985 confirmation fight for attorney general and more recently advised appeals court Judge Robert H. Bork on his unsuccessful fight for Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court last year.
Knight-Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman said yesterday that Timmons & Co. works for the Chrysler Corp., and executives of Chrysler asked the Washington lobbying and consulting firm to promote the joint operating agreement (JOA) for Knight-Ridder. He said that Timmons and Korologos would not contact Meese in violation of Justice Department regulations on the consideration of a JOA.
"We're very aware of the ex parte rules," Chapman said of regulations that forbid such efforts. "Their job will be to get important constituencies to come on the record for the JOA . . . in public and with the Justice Department."
"Mr. Korologos has a great reputation and Knight-Ridder has a great reputation and the ex parte rules are known to us and neither of us is going to handle anything that is not done according to the rules," Chapman said.
At the Justice Department, there was some question about whether new parties can express their views on the JOA before the record closes around mid-February. Federal regulations on joint operating agreements provide that "the record on which the attorney general bases his decision shall consist exclusively of the hearing record, the examiner's recommendation, and any exceptions and responses filed with respect thereto."
Some specialists read that regulation as limiting the discussion to those who already have been parties to the matter. Chapman said that Knight-Ridder has obtained legal advice that anyone can comment at this point.
Timmons told the Free Press Tuesday: "We think our role will be rather limited. About all we can do is make recommendations on the kinds of individuals and organizations that might join in supporting the joint operating agreement."
The proposed agreement would be the largest under the 1970 law that was enacted as a way to save failing newspapers. If approved in Detroit, it would stem losses at both papers of over $140 million from 1981-87, which came as each staff tried to make its publication dominant in Detroit.
Both the Justice Department's Antitrust Division and an administrative law judge appointed by Meese to examine the JOA proposal have recommended against the quasi-merger.