Local newspapers have long relied on revenue from public notices. But governments are increasingly putting those notices on government websites.
They are not necessarily trying to hurt newspapers—but a new law in Florida seems to do just that.
That state now has the first law that threatens to deny that income to independent publishers. It was introduced last year and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in May, according to Courthouse News Service.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, contains “new provisions to allow such notices to be posted exclusively on specific government controlled websites or alternatively, in free newspapers or print publications that have not historically met the requirements to publish public notices,” Courthouse Ne Service continues.
Localities can run the notices in independent notices. But this law seems to discourage them from doing so.
Politics apparently plays a role in this change.
“They have a governor who wants to run for president, basically,” Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, told Courthouse News Services. “And so he picks fights with institutions that you can paint as enemies. And that's a big part of why the bill got introduced and passed in Florida.”
Paid notices are an American tradition. In the early 1800s, the U.S. Post Office placed ads to inform local residents that they had received mail — the only way they would learn of it in an age when there was no home delivery and most postage was paid by the recipient.
But states and other locales are trying to eliminate laws that mandate paid placement in local newspapers. And newspapers, faced with declining revenues on all fronts, are fighting these legislative attempts.
“The motivation for eliminating the newspaper publication requirement is typically from one of two sources: Sometimes it comes from a legislator who doesn’t agree with the editorial position of the newspaper and may seek to remove public notices as a way to get back at them,” writes Dean Ridings, CEO, America’s Newspapers, in Florida’s Monticello News. “And sometimes, it is a sincere approach to save the city or country money.”
Critics worry about transparency. According to Courthouse News Service, Karpel argues that most newspaper websites “have a lot more traffic than government websites and they are more user friendly, so the idea that you're going to move public notices to government websites and not lose lots of transparency is ludicrous.”
Maybe that’s also part of the motive.