Written by Jeremy Alford
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
As more people turn to the Internet for their news, local and state governments are wondering whether paying newspapers to run public notices is the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Momentum for the cause has been building for years. In 2005, there were three bills introduced that targeted official journals - newspapers chosen by local and state governments as the official outlet for public notices - and lawmakers ordered a study on the benefits of a political subdivision or parish using an official Web site instead. The monetary savings were obvious, but not everyone agreed the switch would be in the best interest of Louisiana's citizenry.
Two bills also were filed in the 2006 regular session, and then three more were produced in 2008, including a proposed constitutional amendment from Rep. Hunter Greene, a Baton Rouge Republican, which would have stripped The Advocate of its contract to run the Legislature's official acts, saving taxpayers roughly $250,000 each year.
As all of this was transpiring, the newspaper industry was changing as well. In 2007, an AdweekMedia/Harris Poll survey found that at least two in five adults found it easier to access news online rather than to read a newspaper. It was the first Harris Interactive survey of its kind and has since become an annual study. Those inaugural results pointed to shifting demographics, but more recent findings indicate disappearing demographics. In 2009, the survey found that only two in five U.S. adults are reading daily newspapers, whether in print or online.
When it comes to current state policy discussions, that fact translates. For this year's regular session, there are at least eight bills that seek to tweak the public-notice process and pull revenues away from newspapers.
Last year, Acadiana Business' sister paper, The Independent Weekly, published a cover story on the public notice issue and found that City-Parish President Joey Durel had become among the most vocal critics of the current law, which requires Lafayette Consolidated Government to shell out about $230,000 annually to The Advertiser for the publication of public notices.
Why is Durel an opponent? Among other reasons, the process doesn't always work like it should. In 2009, four public meetings had to be canceled because The Advertiser, reeling at the time from staff cuts, failed to publish the notices two business days before the meetings as required by Lafayette's Home Rule Charter.
To be an official journal, a publication must have paid subscribers, be published at least weekly, contact general-interest content that takes up at least 25 percent of the pages and be located in the parish.
To be certain, newspapers have a great deal at stake in the debate, although it varies depending on the publication. Newspaper publishers say that revenues from public notices make up anywhere from 1 percent to 30 percent of their operating budgets, climbing even higher in the more rural communities.
For instance, Louisiana State Newspapers owns 28 newspapers in the state; of those, 12 are official parish journals. The city of Eunice sits in both Acadia and St. Landry parishes but is the seat of neither parish.
However, the city still pays The Eunice News, which is the city's official journal, an LSN newspaper, $15,000 a year for public notices. Taking into account that number, LSN could lose out on at least $180,000 annually without public notices.
For now, it appears local papers will survive the ongoing regular session. The first test balloon went up with House Bill 131 by Rep. Bodi White, a Denham Springs Republican. It would allow local authorities to discontinue the publishing of grand and petit jury venire lists in official journals and allow them to instead be posted online. The bill passed its initial committee hearing but was killed on the House floor by 61 legislators. According to White, Livingston Parish pays its official journal, The Livingston Parish News, about $280 each month to run the jury lists.
Before the bill was given the boot, the House approved an amendment that would have exempted 23 parishes from the proposed law, which can still be taken back up this session. In a nutshell, none of the lawmakers from these parishes wanted to redirect money from their local newspapers (Lafayette not included). Other lawmakers, meanwhile, interpreted the move as a mandate for local governments to continue paying for advertising space. "Why are we mandating that they do this?" asked Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat.
Additionally, when the House Ways and Means Committee recently took up House Bill 508 by Rep. Chris Roy, an Alexandria Democrat, lawmakers moved the measure to the floor - but only after including an opt-out for newspapers. The bill originally would have allowed notices of delinquency and tax sale information to be published over the Internet rather than a newspaper, but now it's just an option: The amendment instead allows parishes to publish the info on a Web site if they choose, but they are still required to publish in a newspaper as well.
In this case, the Louisiana Press Association's argument again proved to be persuasive. Roy changed the bill to make sure buying ad space from newspapers, albeit most times at a discounted price, was still the law. "Once that was done, the folks from the press were OK with it," he says.
House Bill 1212 by Rep. Jeff Arnold, a New Orleans Democrat, didn't even make it past the committee process. His bill would have given parishes, municipalities and political subdivisions the authority to select a Web site as their official journal. Fundamentally, Arnold argues the Web site would serve the same purpose as the local paper, while simultaneously saving taxpayers money. "We give you the information and you print it up," Arnold says. "The only difference is we do it ourselves."
If there's a wild card at play, it may be Greene's resurrected constitutional amendment, which can be found in House Bill 248 and would move printing of the Legislature's official acts online. "We're just trying to get into the 21st Century," Greene says. "We're one of three states that require the printing of the [acts]. Let the people decide it."
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved Greene's proposal unanimously last week, chiefly because the current law impacts only one publication. "Unless you subscribe to The Advocate, you won't get this," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Schedler says of the annual tabloid. His office is charged with making sure the $250,000 printing job takes place.
While critics have labeled public notice laws as a specialized form of welfare, every U.S. state has some similar kind of regulations. Likewise, it has a storied history that dates back to our founders: Ben Franklin made a substantial part of his wealth printing public notices along the eastern seaboard.
But the long-held argument of opponents that the Internet is not available to all, whereas newspapers can be purchased on practically every corner, is weakening with the passage of time. Just last month, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, scored $80 million in federal cash to help the state Board of Regents expand broadband to Louisiana's poorest areas.
As newspapers continue to wrestle with this issue, Arnold says they'll keep writing editorials about the importance of public notices with nary a mention of the costs. For now, there's one reason why he might lose that debate. Standing outside the House clerk's office during the opening week of the session, he laughs and pulls something out of his pocket before explaining, "The difference is, I buy my ink by the pen. They buy theirs by the barrel."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected].