Friday, April 14, 2017

New Attacks Target Newspapers

Just as President Trump seems somewhat distracted by world events from his war against news media, far right and alt-right Republicans are launching new assaults on the press, especially newspapers that serve small communities. My hometown newspaper in Wisconsin published an appeal to readers to "oppose proposals to eliminate legals from newspapers" by contacting elected officials.

Old-style progressive Republicans such as "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, once powers in the Badger State, must be turning over in their graves. As in many states, progressives led the way in pushing adoption of legislation requiring openness in local government operations and some private matters such as settling estates and debt collection. Some key features were requirements to print notices of bid invitations, election sites and hours, government employment opportunities, and proposed regulation changes in a "newspaper of public record." These "legals" or "legal ads" not only have long supported democracy by helping to make government activities transparent, they have been important sources of revenue for community newspapers.

I did a bit of calculating just how important legals can be to a small newspaper by measuring ads in my local weekly paper, a modest journal that usually publishes eight pages per issue. The number and sizes of ads seemed normal.  Of the 197 total column inches of advertising, 74 or 37.6 percent were legal ads. A small newspaper simply cannot survive if it loses a third of its advertising revenue.

Printed publication of legal notices shines light on democratic processes. Moves to rescind state legislation requiring publication of "legals" threaten many newspapers, especially small community publications.

Newspapers, generally, have taken heavy hits in the last two decades. Many closed, consolidated with others, or made moves into internet publication to stay in business. Advertising revenues plunged. In the U.S., print display advertising revenue dropped 45 percent. Revenue from classified ads went down 75 percent, with declines in real estate ads leading the way. Revenue from just two forms of advertising--paid obituaries and legal notices--stayed relatively stable.

Losing legal ad revenue would be a crushing blow to many community newspapers. Wisconsin is not the only state where moves are afoot to eliminate laws designating "newspapers of record" and requiring legal notices be placed in them. In New Jersey, where governor Christie has had numerous run-ins with the press, legislation to curtail legals has been introduced several times and is said to have a good chance of passing this year.

The reasoning of proponents is simple, and difficult to argue against. They claim cities, counties, and townships would save considerable costs. Legal announcements could be made available just as well through the internet. Opponents say there are undefined but substantial costs in setting up and maintaining web pages to post legals. They also decry a loss of openness in public affairs without state laws requiring traditional publication of legals.

Unfortunately, I think those who would strip newspapers of their monopoly on publishing legal notices will prevail eventually. Printed community newspapers are destined to succumb to financial pressures and be replaced by some form of internet news media. What the effect on democratic processes will be is unknown, and that is frightening.


Rummuser said...

In India, the print media is still holding its own and is also reputed to be flourishing. I personally get five newspapers every day not only for differing points of editorial views but also for the five crossword puzzles that I solve every morning. Besides these, I also get two weekly news magazines. People like me are quite common in India. We prefer to read hard copies rather than watch non stop TV.

I can however understand your angst against stopping legal ads as here too they are a major souce of ad revenue for the newspaper.

Dick Klade said...

You certainly keep yourself very well informed, Ramana. I read only one newspaper (and work the crossword) every day, but read two extensive news summaries on internet pages. I rarely watch news programs on television. On trips to Central Europe, we have often been surprised at how much more knowledge of world events and even American politics people have than typical Americans do. Contacts in Germany and Austria watch much less television than most Americans do. Good to learn the print media are surviving and even prospering in India.

PiedType said...

My first pre-coffee thought was "then where will legals be published?" Then I realized they really don't want them published anywhere. Surely with what's going on in the world today and in DC, those idiots can find something better to do with their time.

Kay said...

My daughter-in-law was the director for Open Government in New Mexico and has been aghast at all that's been going on now that she works in Washington, D.C.

joared said...

I hadn't realized this was happening with the legal ads. When many want ads stopped appearing in our local newspaper a few years ago, eventually our paper went from bi-weekly to weekly publication. Seems it was a year or so ago I noticed they began carrying pages of legal ads which previously they had not published which was surprising to me, but I thought little more about it. Now you tell me these ads may be threatened. I surely do not want to lose our paper, which I think is quite a special small town newspaper: