Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Opinion: Legal ads are vital to an informed public

From The Herald Dispatch of Huntington:

Some members of the West Virginia Legislature are bound and determined to kill weekly newspapers. They won’t say that openly. They might not even realize it, but that’s the net effect of what they want to do.

How? Through reducing or eliminating the publication of public notices, also known as legal advertising, in daily and weekly newspapers.

Their motivations might be saving money, although the numbers aren’t clear. And it might have to do with hatred of the news media in general.

Either way, it’s a bad idea for the public in general and for newspapers themselves. It’s one of those things that sound so good in theory but end up being so bad in practice.

This year’s effort involves House Bill 4260. It carries the title “Creating the State Central Legal Advertising website.” Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is the lead sponsor. Delegates Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, and John Mandt Jr., R-Cabell, are co-sponsors.

The bill was filed Jan. 19. On Jan. 27 it was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, where it remains.
HB 4260 would eliminate the second and third publication of some public notices in favor of placing them in a new state website for such notices.

Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said the state’s newspaper industry always looks for ways to enhance the reach of public notices, including using the internet, but replacing print publication with internet publication is a bad idea.

Problems go beyond the fact that much of the state has inadequate internet service, he said.
“Newspaper publication is a valuable and traditional source of public notice,” Smith said. When notices appear in print, people can share them with friends and family, he said.

“You don’t have to find it yourself. Someone else can see it,” he said.

With internet-based publication, people would need to actively search for what they need rather than having it there in front of them, he said. It takes the responsibility off the government and places it on the public, he said.

“That is not the intent of public notice,” Smith said.

There’s also the fact that online public notices can be buried in a user-unfriendly website. That would be a great way to hide important but inconvenient information.

Smith describes that process as an exchange of value and an investment in information. On some legals, counties can more than make up the costs of legal ads with publication fees they assess to the subjects of those ads with fees they assess, Smith said.

Two years ago, at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, Smith said Boone County reported that it paid $4,923 for legal ads during the 2018-19 budget year, but it collected $69,725 in publication fees.

That works out to more than $14 received for every dollar spent on legal ads. What private enterprise, county government or school board would turn down a return on investment of 14-to-1?

Sure, there is some self-interest when newspapers object to limiting or eliminating some legal advertising. Newspapers make money on legal ads. Legal advertising is a reliable source of income in a time when other ad revenues are diminishing — even if the state sets the rates it will
pay for those ads.

Weekly newspapers depend more on public notices and legal advertising than dailies. Online news sites come and go with varying degrees of success and quality, but weeklies are usually the sole source of information for the less-populous counties. Weeklies are where people read about government actions and high school sports. Public notices allow people to know when a company wants to discharge waste into the air or water. It’s how people know when local government is about to hire a company to build a new ambulance station or pave a road. Public notices provide a direct, unfiltered look into what’s happening.

Daily newspapers are more likely to survive this assault on their income than weeklies, but they, too, will suffer. Weekly newspapers in West Virginia employ about 400 people. Should legislators who are hostile to local news media sacrifice those jobs to satisfy their anger? Of course not.

“What county or municipality is better off if its newspaper closes?” Smith asks. “When it’s trying to help everybody else, government should not target the newspaper industry as an industry it’s trying to hurt.”

A combination of print and internet publication of public notices works best for the public.

HB 4260 is not needed for another reason, Smith said. Last year, the full Legislature passed into law Senate Bill 642, which orders the state auditor to create a state website for legal ads and requires all state agencies to place their legal ads on the website once it’s functioning.

SB 642 adds publication on a state website in addition to the traditional publication in newspapers to increase public notice.

Also last year, Senate Concurrent Resolution 57 called for a related study of the state’s website for publication of legal notices in lieu of newspaper publication. The study will consider cost savings and the effectiveness of public notice. The auditor’s office is working on the website now and data can be gathered once it’s online.

The trial period for that website will provide data on the effectiveness of print and online publication of legal notices “instead of the whim of one or two legislators,” Smith said.

HB 4260 is another in a yearly battle of legislators who want to punish newspapers for slights, whether real or perceived. The survival of local media and — by extension and in principle — the public’s right to know what those legislators are doing is more important than a few egos.

HB 4260 needs to die in committee for this year and for years to come

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