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A 1970 law that allows competing newspapers to merge their business operations is fattening publishers' wallets but eroding press freedom and the quality of the nation's journalism, a Republican congressman says.

"It seems ironic that some of the very voices which call for free market forces to work in other industries seek government protection for creating monopolies in their own," said Rep. Carl Pursell of Michigan.Pursell introduced a bill Wednesday to repeal the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allows newspapers in the same city to operate as a single business entity while maintaining separate editorial staffs.

The bill would not affect the mergers already in place. But it would prohibit similar arrangements - known as joint operating agreements or JOAs - in the future.

Leaders of Citizens for an Independent Press, a national coalition of small newspaper publishers, business and civic leaders, endorsed Pursell's bill. They accused the newspapers that have entered into JOAs of sacrificing principle for profit.

Pursell said he once favored the law but changed his mind after seeing results of last year's JOA between the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. He said he also was bothered by the fact that JOAs are subject to approval by the U.S. attorney general, since they grant exemptions to antitrust laws.

"Newspapers which seek JOAs are put in a compromising position of being dependent on the federal government for their survival," he said. "How can such newspapers truly fulfill their watchdog role?"

Newspapers in 19 cities, including Salt Lake City, were operating under JOAs last year. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh approved two others - in Las Vegas and York, Pa. - this year.