Newspapers Fight To Keep A Government Perk

American newspapers may differ in their points of view, but nearly all claim to maintain strict independence from the state and local governments they cover. Now they’ve found another thing to agree on: that those governments should keep sending business their way.

For at least the past century, newspapers have made a steady profit from public notices, which state laws require governments to print as advertisements in local newspapers with “general” or “wide” circulation. Contract bidding opportunities, zoning variances, road closures and public meetings are all dutifully set down in black and white, generating a stream of green for the publishers. Private citizens, too, are often required to turn to the newspapers to inform their neighbors of activities such as home construction and expansion.

Recently, however, legislators in several states have been reconsidering the laws that specify newspapers as the only appropriate way to disseminate information. States considering changes to their public notice laws include Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.

At a time when fewer people are reading newspapers, the changes make sense. A Pew Research Center study last year found that only half of Americans regularly read a print newspaper, while 61 percent use the Internet to get news. In a recent telephone survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 39 percent of respondents said the loss of their local newspaper would have no impact on their ability to keep up with local information.

The clear solution is for governments to post notices on their own websites, making them immediately available and searchable for residents, whether they read the local paper or not.

Yet, the fact that fewer people are reading newspapers also gives the papers more incentive to argue that public notices should be required to stay in print. The drop in readership and the resulting drop in ad revenue have left many newspapers struggling to stay afloat. The extra cash from public notices is a nice bonus for big-city dailies and a critical lifeline for small suburban and rural papers.

The News-Progress of Sullivan, Ill., gets 17 percent of its advertising revenue from public notices, publisher Bob Best told The Associated Press. Without that income, it would have to lay off two of its 10 employees, and even that would be no guarantee that it could stay in business. In Montana, where I studied journalism in college, every one of the state’s 56 counties had at least one weekly newspaper, most of which could not have survived without the boost they received from legally-mandated public advertisements.

Given what they have to lose, newspapers have been quick to fight the proposed changes. And they haven’t been shy about using their pages to promote their cause. The Tennessee Press Association and the Michigan Press Association have both launched campaigns to encourage member newspapers to use editorial content to bring readers on board. Papers elsewhere, including the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, have also denounced the proposed laws. The newspapers portray politicians either as sacrificing transparency to save a few dollars, or as deliberately using specious financial arguments to pull a cloak over government activities.

The truth is that the newspapers are the ones placing money before public access. If you want to know what’s going on, they say, you have to rely on a news source whose raw ingredient is wood pulp. How very 1930s. Many papers’ web sites do not reprint the same advertisements as the daily paper, and many also require users to register, while a few demand payment. In a world of near-universal electronic access, confining legal notices to newspapers is more effective at limiting the spread of information than at promoting it.

The hypocrisy does not do much for newspapers’ reputations as independent outlets for news and opinion, either.

In some cases, newspapers may still be the best way to reach people, and, in those situations, governments just might have the good sense to continue to publish notices in papers, regardless of whether the law requires it. Towns with a significant number of older residents, for example, may reach more people through print than online. But when publishing notices on the web makes the most sense, governments and citizens should not be required to pay to have duplicate information appear in an obsolete local paper. As long as the method of public notice is indeed public, people who want to stay informed will have every opportunity to do so.

Newspapers are no longer the only way, or even the best way, to reach a general audience. Our proud and independent press reduces itself to just another special interest when it argues otherwise. If newspapers want to be watchdogs for the people, they can’t also be going to the Legislature’s table to beg for scraps.

About Larry M. Elkin 525 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

9 Comments on Newspapers Fight To Keep A Government Perk

  1. (First, disclosure. I’m the editor at Missouri Press Association, the newspaper trade organization in the state. I’m a former newspaper editor, publisher and owner. Well-managed newspapers in robust markets will be around for as long as they want to be. Many newspapers are doing quite well, if you care to stop parroting the “newspapers are dying” chanters and take a closer look.)
    Missouri Press Association regularly opposes legislation that would move public notices out of newspapers. We encourage our member newspapers to do the same. When they do defend required newspaper public notices, we suggest they not ignore the obvious — they get paid for it.
    The truth is, public notices printed in newspapers are a bargain.
    Here are some of the usual reasons we state for requiring published public notices:
    • Not everyone can get online, and getting online is not free.
    • Public notices in newspapers promote citizen participation in government.
    • They provide a permanent, unalterable, unhackable record of government action.
    • Notices in newspapers go to the people rather than requiring people to go to dozens of government websites to check to see if something they need to know is going on. Not everyone reads the local newspaper, but when an important public notice appears, word gets around — quickly!
    • Maintaining public notices on websites is not without cost, so the claim of reducing expenses doesn’t fly.
    • Public notices give elected officials rock solid evidence that they are doing the public’s business in public. (How much is that worth? Plenty, especially in times when trust and faith in government at all levels hovers around zero.)
    • Archiving of printed newspapers has been going on for a long time. It’s cheap and easy. Nobody understands yet how to archive websites efficiently and economically.
    But we also point out that all the other businesses in town get paid for the goods and services they provide to local government agencies. The grocery store on the corner doesn’t give free food for those in the local lockup. The service station on the edge of town doesn’t change the oil in the sheriff’s car for nothing or fill the tanks of school buses with free fuel.
    Paying to have public notices printed in newspapers is not a bride or a kickback or a subsidy. It’s payment for goods and services rendered.
    Revenue from publishing public notices helps newspapers pay their bills, meet payroll and stay in business. People understand that, particularly those down at the chamber of commerce.
    Legislatures all over the country are considering moving public notices from newspapers to government websites. The arguments for newspaper notices and against online notices are many. The best argument for online notices is false. Printed public notices are a bargain, and posting public notices online would not be free.
    And there’s this: Like the Missouri Press Association, newspaper associations all across the country are creating public notice websites to aggregate on a single website all notices placed in newspapers by all government agencies in the state. Why create more government bureaucracy duplicating something that’s already being done by a non-government organization?
    Kent Ford, Editor
    Missouri Press Association
    Columbia, Mo.

  2. For me, the point most often overlooked in this argument, is that people do read newspapers. You use facts that say only half of Americans regularly look at a newspaper. Somehow that’s a bad thing? How many people read public notice websites? I suspect it’s far lower than 50% of the USA… You do a fine job of painting it as pork barrel publishing by failing to address what public notices are meant for, informing the public. You get what you pay for. Newspapers are still the best bang for your buck.

    I stand a far better chance to learn that my neighbor is seeking a variance from the local building code if it is published in the newspaper, as opposed to on a website that I would only go to if I knew that I needed to be watching for said notice.

    If you announce that the county budget is now available on the county’s website, a few people will check it out. If you publish it in the newspaper, so many more people will have a chance to see what their government is spending their money on. If the idea is to make something public, then the newspaper is still your best bet. If you are simply trying to find the cheapest way to fulfill your legal obligations to make the information available, preferably with fewer people seeing it, sure there are obviously better choices.

  3. Disclosure: Owner/Editor of a print only small local county seat newspaper in Missouri.

    Many of the readers of small newspapers do not have internet connections. An older/less computer savvy community will not understand how/when to check a governmental website for notices. It is foolish to believe that anyone will do so on a regular basis, so many will not see these notices. Newspapers fill a particular need – that being one of information – people will turn to newspapers every time for information – especially with an eye to watching and informing what local and state governments are doing.

    To imagine that the internet will be the provider of that is wrongheaded.

    Newspapers cannot be so easily replaced.

    The trust that is built over the decades cannot be broken by technology. The editor/reader relationship is a bond forged by mutual interest.

  4. As always the author of the article “Newspapers fight to keep a government perk” writes in generalities and assumes all newspapers are failing Not so. Community newspapers are alive and well and most times are the only way many of their readers can find the legal news and other news that they need to keep informed. It surprises me that a writer for THe Journal is not better informed. There is a lot more out there than major daily newspapers, look around.
    The Lamar Democrat in Lamar, Missouri, serves a county of 12,000, and despite the fact we have an online newspaper, most of our subscribers still want the paper version. OUr subscriptions are up because we do a job no one else is even interested in doing.
    We are not fighting for scraps; we are doing what true journalists do.
    Rayma Bekebrock Davis, editor and owner

  5. Disclaimer: Online editor at a daily newspaper in Missouri.

    First of all, I don’t know why one would assume that these ads don’t make it online. If you want to argue that any newspapers that don’t make them available online should do so, that’s an entirely different argument than arguing the ads should be taken out of the newspaper venue entirely. If you want to argue newspapers should make RSS feeds of legals available, that’s an issue worth discussing too, but again, not the same as letting the government do it. One should measure the reach that print and online editions of a newspaper have vs. a given government website before making conclusions about what is adequate.

    Second of all, do we want to entrust the distribution of this information to the government entity that has a vested political interest in whether or not the notice gets widely seen or not? I’m sorry but I’m not that trusting, nor do I think the public should be. Who’s going to audit that to make sure it gets published on a government site according to standards? To make sure it really got on the website and stayed there for the duration without an outage? If government is going to pay to have it audited by a third disinterested party in order to make sure there’s no funny business going on, well, you already have that in newspapers, which must document the times a notice is published. And is each jurisdiction and each agency going to publish its own notices so that they won’t be aggregated in one convenient location? That’s problematic. I have no objection to governments posting notices on their websites. I think they should. As a supplement to publishing via newspapers, not a substitute for it.

    Finally, in the name of disclosure, perhaps the author would like to elaborate on how much he or his firm or his clients have had to pay to publish legal notices over the years. Do he or his clients have a financial interest in this argument that is as much a motivator for his conclusions as he claims that newspapers have? That’s not meant to be inflammatory or personal. We certainly want to decide the issue on the basis of facts and logic, not ad hominem attacks, but if we’re going to bring newspapers’ financial motives into question, let’s have the same light shining on the opposition’s financial and business motives. Thanks.

    • Since you asked:To my recollection, I have published a legal notice once in my life, when my wife and I wanted to make an improvement to our home. I have never discussed legal notices with my clients, but I am not aware that any of them have a material financial interest in this issue. Earlier in my career I was a journalist. I worked first for a newspaper that published legal notices, and later for The Associated Press, which does not, though of course it serves newspapers that do. I approach this topic from the standpoint of someone who believes that journalism purporting to be independent of government ought not to depend upon government to drive business its way.

  6. If your aim is to place public notices out of the view of the public I think this is a wonderful idea. How many people do you honestly think will go to a website to view a public notice?

  7. Disclaimer: founder/owner of a thriving weekly newspaper in Missouri

    If you think newspapers are dead, come to my little town of 2,500 on a Wednesday morning when the paper is brought back from the printers. You’ll find people lined up at the gas stations where we sell the paper, or waiting outside the newspaper office in their cars. They can’t wait.

    We have more subscribers than our previous competitor did 15 years ago. We’re far from dead.

    Yes, we benefit. We’re a business. Make no mistake about it.

    But, newspapers, particularly in rural areas, are the best watchdog for a free and open government. By providing the information in a public forum that is accessible to all, we inform taxpayers of where their funds go, and give them opportunities to participate in a free and open government.

    We also publish legal notices on our free on-line edition.

    Dead and dying? Hah. I’ll be here long after you, Larry M. Elkin.

  8. Archiving and security are huge issues for Internet-only public notices. Who will safeguard the original notices? Who will vouch for their authenticity and accuracy?
    In non-urban areas, as others have pointed out, newspaper readership is well above the 50 percent quoted in the story.
    Those of actually working in any of those small town or cities know where people get their information. And, begging your pardon, we know it first-hand, unlike a hotshot blogger from afar.

    Patrick Martin
    Leader Publications
    Festus, Mo.

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