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
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
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. Badger State
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
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
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
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.