MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The House Government Organization Committee passed a bill on Wednesday that some fear could help drive some local newspapers out of business. Members discussed and debated it for about 90 minutes before approving it along mostly party lines.
HB 4260 requires the state auditor to establish a public legal advertising website by Jan. 1, 2023, to accept legal ads from “all persons or entities required by the state law or court to post legal advertisements” to use the site for free.
There are six classes of legal ads: 1 and 1.0, 2 and 2.0, and 3 and 3.0, committee counsel explained. Current law requires Class 1 and 1.0 to appear in a newspaper once. Class 2 and 2.0 must appear once a week for two weeks, and 3 and 3.0 once a week for three weeks. Classes 2 and 3 deal with state taking over private property for failure to pay taxes.
The bill reduces the newspaper publication requirement to just once for all classes as long as the ad also appears on the state website.
It was explained that SB 642 passed last year did roughly the same thing, only for state agencies, to take effect July 1 this year. The intent was to require the agencies to publish both on the website and in newspapers.
Stephen Connolly, general counsel for the auditor’s office, said that the office spends about $800,000 per year on legal ads; he estimated that reducing the publication requirement could reduce spending to about $300,000.
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, is president of HD Media, which owns the Charleston and Huntington newspapers.
He argued that local papers serve their local readers. He didn’t understand how the state will convince the public to come to a website every day to look up local legal ads, especially given the lack of connectivity across much of the state.
“I can’t imagine someone going to a state website every day, unless they’re just bored.” He wanted to know how the state will ensure that people will know to look up the ad and not miss out.
“As someone in the industry I’m not against this idea,” he said, but this bill goes beyond SB 642 to cut newspapers out more quickly, before they know if the program will work at all, and forces people to rely on a government entity to publish their legal ads, which will disenfranchise many.
The Legislature should increase the reach of communication, not diminish it, he said.
Skaff and West Virginia Press Association Executive Director Don Smith both told the members that local governments often make far more than they spend on legal ads by collecting publication fees from the people whose names get posted for delinquent taxes.
“Everyone has data on what they spent, not what they recouped from publication fees,” Smith said. “I think that should be done before we move forward.”
Committee chair Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is the bill’s lead sponsor and turned the chair over to vice-chair Geoff Foster, R-Putnam and a co-sponsor, to argue for the bill. He argued that the bill would allow people from anywhere in the country access to the legal ads free of charge. In newspapers, entities have to pay for the ad and people have to buy the paper to read it.
Smith countered that the WVPA has established a legal ad website that most papers put their ads on for free, connectivity is bad across the state and people pay more for their internet plans than they do for newspapers. Also, the number of local newspapers with web presence is growing and most don’t put their legals behind paywalls.
Newspapers are already struggling with lost revenue, he said, with COVID and various supply and consumer goods shortages making it worse. The income loss they will suffer from this bill could drive many smaller ones out of business – meaning many places will lose access to local news.
“We don’t think there’s a county better off without a newspaper,” he said.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, also opposed the bill. “I think if we pass laws that harm newspapers we are abridging the freedom of the press,” she said.
The bill passed in a voice vote and goes to Judiciary for further amendment and review.
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