Those of us who still read newspapers have seen them -- the pages and pages of teeny type describing changes in zoning, foreclosure notices, and all sorts of other arcane information. Most of us just turn the page.
But in publishing, it's big money, and newspapers that have already lost such lucrative revenue sources as want ads to Craiglist are fighting attempts in a number of states to change the law requiring such legal notices to be printed in the newspaper and instead allow them to be posted online.
Websites say that few people read the paper any more and that the legal notice requirements cost municipalities much more than an online source. Newspapers say it gives people interested in the legal notices a single source for the information.
Such fights are going on in a number of states, including Connecticut, Michigan, and Tennessee.
"The legislation will allow public notices to appear exclusively on government websites, despite the fact that less than 10% of the U.S. population views a local, state or federal government
website daily and more than 25% of adults don’t even have access to the Internet," said a press release from the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association. "In comparison, 83% of adults read a community newspaper at least once per week, according to the National Newspaper Association (NNA)."
On the other hand, placers of such advertisements, such as attorneys, are pointing out that Connecticut newspapers such as the Hartford Courant charge more than twice as much as the Los Angeles Times and that such ads make millions of dollars for the newspaper.
Similar costs crop up in other communities. In 2008, one Indianapolis county paid $71,000 for the newspaper space. "Marion County has already spent more than $50,000 this year and may need to hold another tax sale later this year, because the bad economy is causing more homeowners to fall behind on their taxes," said a news report.
Similar legislation is coming up in Michigan, after lobbying from the Michigan Municipal League of more than 500 cities and towns. One newspaper noted, however, that "according to the Michigan Press Association, a check of various municipalities across the state last fall showed that these notices comprised on average 0.0005 percent of a general fund budget."
However, it might be difficult for citizens to find out such information from websites, say critics of the plan. "Are you prepared to read your town Web site every day to seek out public notices to make sure that decisions aren’t being made that could affect you or your neighborhood?" asked a columnist in one small Connecticut paper. "If you’re not, you’ll have to develop ESP to know when a public notice might crop up there that might concern you."
"This is not just about newspapers and transparency; it's also about consumer protection when it comes to whether a clerk has posted information about a foreclosure in time for the owner to possibly save a home," warned one Tennessee newspaper.