Local newspapers nationwide are facing the loss of a key source of cash that many need to survive: legal notices.
Multiple states have laws in the hopper that would kill the traditional placement of government ads in print newspapers and place them online.
Case in point: the Tennessee legislature is mulling a bill, SB 1324, that would remove public foreclosure notices from newspapers to a state website that would charge a $200 fee for uploads.
Maine is considering a bill to place the notices online. So are Iowa, and Connecticut, and Texas and Kentucky, and Idaho, and Arkansas.
Newspapers, their very survival at stake in some cases, are condemning such bills.
Carol Daniels, executive director for the Tennessee Press Association, says the proposed bill would potentially put small businesses out of business (and) creating news deserts in Tennessee.”
The Tennessean notes that 68 newspapers, many serving “rural populations as the main news sources and central community hubs, could face deep financial trouble if stripped of one of their most reliable revenue sources.”
In Maine, Myles Smith, executive director of the Maine Broadband Coalition, states that "176 Maine municipalities do not have a town website, and some do not even have an email address," according to The Portland Press.
The Portland Press continues,. “Tens of thousands of copies of newspapers are distributed in Maine's towns and cities each week. No computer, no phone, no internet connection (and approximately 80,000 households in Maine do not have one) — no problem.”
In Iowa, there is another criticism: “This legislation would require legal notices to be posted on a website controlled by the very government legal notices are designed to oversee, and notices would not be required to published in a local newspaper,” says the Des Moines Register.
Critics of the Tennessee legislation point out that the state already posts legal notices on a website.
But there are equally vehement defenders of such bills.
“Newspapers are now a hurdle to transparency as they cannot adequately comply with the requirement for public notices since many are no longer delivered locally,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told The Texan.
Shaheen continues, “As technology improves, the way newspapers do business has changed, yet crony newspaper publishers continue to fight this legislation, even if it means less transparency for everyday Texans.”
In Connecticut, the state appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision and ruled that publishing notices in the Middletown Press wasn’t enough, because the Press has no subscribers in the town of Fenwick.
Paid notices have long been a part of American publishing. In the 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.
Supporters of local journalism are trying various means to help it. Indeed, a bill proposed by North Carolina State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Guilford) would reverse a 2017 law passed by the legislature, that ended the longstanding print newspaper requirement.
In the end, critics argue that such bills hurt transparency.
“Requiring public notices to be posted in newspapers helps ensure that the public has access to important information about government activities and decisions, and that government agencies are transparent and accountable,” writes Mike DeLuca, publisher of Hearst Connecticut Media Group and president of the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association, according to the nonprofit CT Mirror.
DeLuca concludes, “It is imperative these notices are published by a credible and independent body.”