Recent legislation threatens newspapers’ public notice revenue
(CN) — Want to post a notice of a public meeting, announce a public bid or a project or inform the public of some other government proceeding? Do you need to publish updated voter rolls, notices of election or notify non respondents to subpoenas of legal proceedings or court actions? Are you a contractor who has finished a publicly funded project and you need to inform the taxpayers of its completion?
Until this year, you were legally obligated, in most instances, to pick up the phone and call your nearest newspaper. Historically, newspapers in all 50 states have been the means to disseminate the public notice of certain operations of the government, certain business activities and certain civil legal proceedings.
But in May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the first law in the nation threatening to strip that responsibility — and its related revenue — away from independent publishers.
Florida’s new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, allows local governments to continue to post public notices in local newspapers, but also carved out 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.
“Public notice goes back a long way,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center (PNRC), a national nonprofit that partners with state press associations. “It used to be someone on the courthouse steps yelling ‘hear ye, hear ye,' but newspapers are still, by far, the best way to get public notice out. The idea itself is a really neat idea, which is, the government passes laws that require it to inform citizens in a nonpartisan way about the activities it is undertaking. And it's different from other types of information in that there are statutes or laws requiring [the government] to present that information to the public in a specific way.”
PNRC considers public notices to be one of three legs supporting a proverbial stool of government transparency. The other two legs are open meetings and the Freedom of Information Act.
PNRC believes notices should remain in the realm of newspapers because newspapers are more accessible, independent, verifiable and archivable than government websites.
“This is not an argument about print versus the internet,” Karpel said. “This is an argument about newspapers and newspaper websites versus government websites. 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.”
Just a year ago, the Florida Legislature passed a compromise bill with the support of newspaper publishers that would have kept all public notices in their domain. But Karpel said DeSantis viewed newspapers as a political target.
“They have a governor who wants to run for president, basically,” he said. “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.”
Among the publications that expressed opposition to the bill was the Tallahassee Democrat, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. During committee meetings when the proposal was discussed, it was suggested newspapers earn millions of dollars per year by publishing the ads. As the subscriber base and traditional ad revenue have plummeted for many newspapers in the past 10-15 years, some evidence suggests the revenue from publishing public notices is actually keeping some smaller newspapers afloat.
But Karpel said the revenue should not be considered a government handout to independent publishers.