A week ago, the Department of Justice intervened in the bankruptcy auction of the Orange County Register and its sister newspaper, the Press-Enterprise, contending that the sale to the highest bidder would violate anti-trust laws by creating a monopoly in the local newspaper market in Southern California. The papers' owners accepted the lower bid instead. You might be inclined to shrug this off as not such a big deal, and so might we, even given that the losing party in this equation was Tribune Publishing, our corporate parent. After all, the upshot is that the owners of the two papers (or, more precisely, their creditors) netted a few million less, and control of the Register and Press-Enterprise went to one national newspaper conglomerate rather than another.

But there is a broader issue at stake here, and that is whether the Justice Department's action, based on an outdated understanding about the way news is disseminated and consumed and the way advertising is bought and sold, will achieve precisely the opposite of its intended effect. If this becomes a precedent, consumers' ability to access high-quality local news and opinions could be harmed rather than protected.

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At first blush, the government's contention that a Tribune takeover of these two papers would produce a monopoly sounds like a slam dunk. Because Tribune owns the Los Angeles Times and recently bought the San Diego Union-Tribune, the purchase of the Orange County papers would consolidate all the major daily newspapers in an enormous region, and more pertinently, give Tribune a 98 percent share of daily, local English-language newspaper circulation in Orange County and an 81 percent share in Riverside County. The government contended (and a federal judge agreed, in granting a temporary restraining order) that such market control would enable Tribune to increase costs for subscribers and advertisers and decrease the level of service.

The fallacy of that argument is particularly obvious when it comes to advertising. The rise (and indeed, the dominance) of online classified advertising venues like Craigslist and of targeted advertising through Google, Facebook and the like has clearly demonstrated that there is no such thing as an exclusive local market for daily newspaper advertising. Advertisers are interested in getting their messages in front of the right consumers in the most cost effective way possible, and there is more competition for those dollars in every market in the country than ever before.

U.S. District Court Judge André Birotte Jr. wrote in his order in the case that he was unconvinced by Tribune's argument that consumers similarly have a multitude of options for local news. Most online content, he wrote, is aggregated and repackaged from other sources, most frequently from newspapers themselves. That may initially have been true, but it is getting less and less so. High-quality, online-only reporting and commentary is flourishing not only on the national scale but also in local markets with sites like the Texas Tribune and MinnPost. While nothing of that caliber may now exist in Orange or Riverside counties, the point is that it easily could, particularly if readers feel ill served by a legacy newspaper. The barrier to entry is far lower than it was in the days of printing presses and ink bought by the barrel.

What's ironic about the situation is that the reason both Tribune and the winning bidder, Digital First Media, were interested in the Register and Press-Enterprise in the first place was as part of an increasingly common strategy to cope with a much more competitive media landscape. Both were trying to find efficiencies in printing and distribution costs (Digital First also owns several papers in the L.A. market) in order to improve the economic viability of local newsgathering. Both estimated they could save $10 million to $12 million a year under the deal. It's obviously not the only thing newspapers need to do to stay competitive, but it can help.

It's a strategy readers in this region are familiar with. In recent years, The Sun bought City Paper, the Annapolis Capital and the Carroll County Times for precisely the same reason. By consolidating back-end operations, we are able to save money in ways that don't directly affect readers and invest in things that do, such as The Sun's in-depth local reporting on vital topics including police brutality, the effects of violence on children, the struggles of immigrant students and most recently the misuse of Tasers. Meanwhile, the papers have retained independent editorial voices — for example, both the Capital and Times endorsed Larry Hogan for governor, and The Sun did not.

We had an obvious degree of self interest in what happened in Southern California, but there, what's done is done. The reason we speak up now is out of concern that the Justice Department will apply these assumptions about the local news business the next time a media company, be it Tribune or some other, tries the same thing. Newspapers are certainly guilty of having been too slow to recognize the shifting landscape around them, to their detriment and to the detriment of their readers. It would be that much worse if the government's own outdated views of the business made it harder for them finally to adapt.

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