This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.
They aren’t usually a newspaper’s most scintillating content: the fine print legal notices that local, state, and federal governments are required to publish to let voters know what they’re doing.
But from a business perspective, the reviews, which cover everything from rezoning applications to sidewalk cafe permits, are a vital source of revenue for US newspapers at a time when other traditional advertising revenue continues to decline. Since 2005, the The United States lost more than 2,500 newspapers, a quarter of its total.
Yet in some states, including Florida and Colorado, this source of revenue is under threat as politicians try to eliminate the requirement to print legal notices in state journals. In some cases, the desire to remove legal notices required by law is described as a budget-cutting measure in the digital age. In others, it is openly presented as a punishment for negative media coverage.
“I don’t think the concept of legal notices is controversial. There must be a non-partisan way to officially announce what the government is doing. What’s controversial is how it happens,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notices Resource Center, an organization that tracks the status of legal notices in all 50 states. “We’ve seen it become more of a partisan issue over the last five or ten years. In some states, there are Republicans who are in battle with the media as part of their political strategy. To that extent he has become partisan.
Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have introduced legislation that would move public notices from newspapers to government websites. Before 2022, none of these bills had been passed, mainly due to opposition from state press associations, Karpel said. But this year, Florida lawmakers approved a bill that allows government agencies to post their legal opinions on government websites if they determine it costs less and can show there is a sufficient broadband access for residents to view easily.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a media critic, signed the measure in May. The bill comes into force on January 1. This concerns David Chavern, President and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a leading business group in the information industry. “It is a bad idea to expect the government to publish opinions about itself. There is a self-interest component where the government decides where to post is just not healthy public policy,” he said. “I think people who say, ‘Let’s just let the government put things on their website,’ haven’t understood that.” Karpel expects there will be litigation over ambiguous language in the bill and said it could make government agencies reluctant to drop newspaper notices out of hand.
The fight over newspaper disclaimers has also been repeatedly brought up in Colorado. At a press conference in April 2020, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis called the third-party public notice requirement “stupid” in the internet age and said he would consider signing a draft law to eliminate it once the pandemic is over.
This spring, a fight broke out in Westcliffe, the county seat of Custer County, a small jurisdiction in south-central Colorado with a year-round population approaching 5,000. The Tribune of the wet mountain, century-old city newspaper, lost the tender to publish legal opinions to a nine-year-old partisan newspaper called the Sentinel Sangre de Cristo even though the Tribune presented the lowest bid. In a town hall meeting, two of the three county commissioners voted to move the “official document” designation to the Sentinel, which bills itself as “the voice of conservative Colorado.” One cited the Tribune’s “combative” coverage as the reason for the change.
The loss of the imprint has cost the Tribune between $10,000 and $15,000 a year in direct revenue, said publisher Jordan Hedberg, who ran the paper for the past four years and was a reporter there before. The loss is likely higher due to the halo effect of being the official newspaper, he added.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that governments cannot use contracts to retaliate against protected speech, but we have a county commissioner retaliating against us for doing our job,” Hedburg said. “Basically the only way we’re going to qualify is if we don’t write anything that irritates that particular commissioner.” Hedburg said he plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the county commission’s decision based on the First Amendment.
In another part of the state this summer, Pitkin County commissioners withdrew legal opinions from The Aspen Times, the city’s oldest newspaper, saying its new out-of-town owner, Ogden Newspapers, needed regain the trust of the community after a messy libel suit involving a local developer with ties to Russia.
Affluent Aspen is rare among small towns, as it is served by two competing newspapers. Rather than eliminating print imprints or directing them to a partisan operation, commissioners voted to make the Aspen Daily News, rival of the Aspen Times, the official official newspaper.
Les High, a longtime publisher in a small town in North Carolina, estimates that small community newspapers could lose 20 to 25 percent of their revenue if imprints disappear, compared to only 5 percent for large daily newspapers. “It’s the little guys who are at risk,” said High, who now runs the Independent border belt, a nonprofit public interest news site that covers four counties in North Carolina. “They’re already struggling and they’re in counties without big retailer revenue streams. If we lost public notices here, I bet you’d see 15-20% of small papers disappear.
In light of the ongoing fighting in the country, all American newspapers should take steps to ensure they continue to be recognized as the best place for legal advice, several media advocates agreed. “Newspapers need to be proactive,” warned Dean Ridings, the former head of the Florida Press Association and now CEO of America’s Newspapers, an advocacy group. In 2012, for example, under his leadership, the Florida Press Association pushed the state to change its statute to require that when a legal opinion appears in a newspaper, it must also be published online and on a government website that aggregates legal opinions across the state. Other states have followed suit.
In the digital age, another thing newspapers can do is send alerts when legal notices are filed that affect subscribers in particular geographies or those who have indicated there are topics of interest to them. . “We can do some soul-searching as an industry,” Chavern said. “We need to be on the cutting edge of technology, making reviews available digitally, in fact very available, rather than making it a passive experience. It’s up to publishers to get better and better.
Ridings adds, “Publishers need to look for creative ways to get them out. Maybe it’s a bigger button on their website. Maybe it’s about having an ongoing report once a month. Now would be a good time to put some effort into making them easier to find digitally. We know how to do these things.