AP Reports on “Fight Against Publishing Notices in Newspapers”

ap_logoOn the final day of 2016, the Associated Press provided subscribing news organizations with a brief story about the “fight against publishing notices in newspapers”. The piece covered Gov. Chris Christie’s stalled attempt to eliminate newspaper notice in New Jersey, and also mentioned new public notice laws passed last year in Arizona and Massachusetts.

“I think with the state legislatures it’s just simply a matter of saving a few bucks,” Kip Cassino, a media analyst at Borrell Associates, told AP reporter Josh Cornfield. “It’s going to keep coming up and I think before the next decade ends, I don’t think you’re going to see the legals in newspapers anymore.”

The 550-word article cited public policy considerations supporting public notice in newspapers only in the final paragraph.

“You don’t want to put the fox in charge of the hen house,” Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association Executive Director Robert Ambrogi told the wire service. “The main reason legal notices are published is to ensure government transparency and government accountability. In order to have that process done in a neutral and objective way, it needs to be managed and overseen by a third party.”

A Google search indicates at least 60 subscribing news organizations published all or part of the story on their website.

Kentucky Paper Treats Public Notice Like News

mike-scoginMost public notices look like classified ads — an undifferentiated mass of agate type, designed primarily for goal-directed readers.

The public notices in Kentucky’s Georgetown News-Graphic are different. They look like news stories (PDF), designed to capture readers’ attention and promote the kind of serendipity that distinguishes newsprint from electronic formats. News-Graphic Publisher Mike Scogin (photo on left) decided to make this change about a year ago, after reading an issue of a newsletter distributed by newspaper-design consultant Ed Henninger.

One of Henninger’s suggestions — make public notices look more like the news — made sense to Scogin, who worked in newsrooms in Natchez, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama before becoming a publisher. He was the kind of journalist who read the public notices in his newspaper because he knew they were a source of news.

“The news value of public notice is overlooked,” Scogin says. “I thought that redesigning our public notice section was a good way to promote that. I also wanted to show the local government units that run the notices that we’re acting in their best interest.”

Scogin said the transition to a “presentable public notice section that invites readers” hasn’t been easy. Public notices must be run verbatim, which eliminates the design flexibility that comes with news stories. And the production staff responsible for designing public notices at the News-Graphic “just want to make ads,” so they aren’t used to thinking in terms of news design. So Scogin had to bring his newsroom and production department together to make the change.

He says local government officials have generally acknowledged the new look, but its biggest proponents have been his readers. He hears regularly from subscribers who hail the increased accessibility of the notices. 

Not everyone has been happy about it though. The owner of a liquor store who placed a notice in the News-Graphic to qualify for a liquor license was irate because its increased visibility prevented him from keeping his plans hidden from his local competitor. 

Scogin’s upgrade exceeds the letter of the law in Kentucky, which only requires notices to be published in 7-point type. The public notices in the News-Graphic are now 10.5 points, the same size as the type used for news stories in the paper. Moreover, the section head, large headlines, and pillowy white space, and the graphics that now accompany some notices, also use space. It’s space that Scogin doesn’t charge extra for.

“This is important,” Scogin says. “I’m happy to give up the extra space to provide our readers with information they need.”

Christie’s Effort to Eliminate Newspaper Notice in NJ Stalls

chris_christieIt isn’t unusual for politicians seeking revenge for negative press coverage to retaliate by sponsoring legislation that would eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers. It is unprecedented, however, for the press to openly acknowledge the lawmaker’s intentions and to dub the legislation a “newspaper revenge bill.”

Such is the bruising nature of politics in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to move all public notices in the state to government websites was withdrawn from consideration on Monday afternoon. But the newspaper industry isn’t out of the woods yet. The bill remains active and Christie has vowed to make it his “top priority” in 2017. The speaker of the General Assembly has also announced his intention to return to the issue “very soon.”

The legislation was introduced last Monday and had the support of members of both parties, including the Republican governor and both leaders of New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature. By Thursday, it was reported out of Senate and Assembly committees with wide margins and bipartisan support and was fast-tracked for a Monday afternoon vote in both chambers. Things looked grim for the newspaper industry.

But a ferocious lobbying effort mounted by the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) and wall-to-wall coverage of the “newspaper revenge bill” by the state’s newspapers and their websites unleashed a wave of grassroots opposition that ultimately swept through the statehouse and turned things around. On Monday morning, the Democratic caucus met for several hours and by the end of the meeting it was clear to party leaders the legislation lacked support. Both houses pulled the bill from their voting agendas.

According to press reports, the legislation was the result of a backroom deal between Christie and the Democratic leaders in which each pledged to support two separate bills. In addition to the “newspaper revenge bill,” the other bill would have overridden statutory limits on the governor’s income and allowed Christie to profit from a book deal. It also would have boosted the salaries of Cabinet members, judges and other executive branch personnel, and increased legislative staff budgets.

By all accounts, the deluge of press coverage about the secretive deal-making generated widespread citizen concern, and as a result legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes were overwhelmed. By Monday morning, that grassroots uprising and Christie’s weak political support  — he has an 18 percent approval rating — had turned the tide.

During the two hearings on Thursday and the lobbying that followed, the newspaper industry george-whitewas joined by a wide range of New Jersey-based nonprofit organizations, including unions, environmentalists, and citizen groups. They were troubled by the prospect of eliminating public notice from newspapers and their websites and understood the blow to transparency that would result from spreading the notices across the websites of the state’s 1,000+ lightly trafficked government websites, many of which are haphazardly maintained.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the state’s Association of Counties officially backed the bill, but neither appeared to testify at the hearings. Clearly, support among government officials wasn’t unanimous. “We rely on local press to cover planning boards and township committee meetings,” GOP Mayor Nicolas Platt, of Harding Township, told the Star-Ledger. “This is a bill we did not ask for. This came as a shock to me. We don’t manage our web sites that well.”

The battle generated national coverage, with the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal among the news organizations reporting on the “newspaper revenge bill” and Christie’s book deal. The national coverage largely mirrored the reporting in New Jersey, where the primary substantive issues addressed were the newspaper closures and loss of newspaper-industry jobs the bill would cause, and questionable assumptions about the taxpayer money that would be saved by moving public notices to government websites.

Christie claimed the bill would save the state $80 million, but his administration never provided a source for its estimate. NJPA estimated that government expenditures on public notice in the state were closer to $20 million, with $8 million paid by the government and the remainder funded by businesses and individuals. In one of the more unusual details of the battle, Christie’s repeated and mistaken claim that homeowners tied up in foreclosure are responsible for paying the cost of foreclosure notices was never challenged in any of the many press reports about the bill.

According to NJPA, the bill would have caused the loss of 200 to 300 newspaper industry jobs in the state. This figure was cited in almost every news report on the legislation. By mid-day on Monday, Christie’s communications team was lashing out at the papers, issuing a release titled “Media Billionaires Continue To Demand NJ Taxpayer Subsidy.” The release focused primarily on Gannett and Advance Publications, the two biggest newspaper publishers in the state, accusing the companies of profiting from “corporate welfare from a mandate that municipalities, school districts and counties publish legal notices in print newspapers, instead of giving them the option to post online.” (Emphasis in the original)

In fact, the bill would have given municipalities the option of purchasing space in newspapers in order to provide public notice. However, as NJPA and others opposed to the bill noted, this provision would have given government officials a club to punish local newspapers for negative coverage.

When the prospects for newspapers were darkest, NJPA offered lawmakers a compromise, agreeing to cut government rates for taxpayer-funded public notice ads by 50 percent while instituting a series of gradual increases in the fees charged for notices subsidized by businesses and other private parties. Public notes rates in New Jersey are set by statute and haven’t been raised since 1983.

“We’re pleased that many legislators and citizens heard our message and ultimately decided not to rush such an important government transparency issue,” said NJPA Executive Director George White (pictured above). “We look forward to returning after the holidays and continuing the conversation about how to effectively modernize the public notification process for the digital age.”

“Legislators in New Jersey recognized with some prodding that this issue is more complex than they thought and the public is very concerned about reducing government transparency,” said Brad Thompson, CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co. and president of PNRC. “We are gratified New Jersey decided not to become the first state in the country to vastly reduce their citizens’ right to know by eliminating public notice in local newspapers.”

    Press Coverage:

Jersey Publishers ‘Not Slowing Down’ in Opposition to Christie Newspaper ‘Revenge Bill’, Politico
The Ramifications of Christie’s Failed ‘Newspaper Revenge’ and Book Deal Bills, The Observer
The Newspaper Issue isn’t Over Yet, NJ Advance Media
Lawmakers’ Revolt Sinks Christie Book Deal, Newspaper Bill, The Record/NorthJersey.com
A Message From Governor Chris Christie On Posting Legal Notices Online, Gov. Chris Christie
Christie & Dem Bosses Get Public Spanking They Deserve, Tom Moran, Star-Ledger
Sorry, Christie, Newspapers are Alive and Kicking, Alfred Doblin, The Record

Government Website Notice Inadequate, Admits Environmental Agency

heidi2_529340_7The director of the same Michigan environmental agency under fire for dismissing concerns about the contamination of Flint’s water supply admitted her department failed to provide sufficient notice of another recent water proposal in the state, according to MLive Media Group.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) director Heidi Grether (pictured on the left) told an air and waste management law conference last week that 42 days on MDEQ’s website “probably” wasn’t sufficient to properly notify the public about a request by Nestle Waters North America to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps in Osceola County. Grether was named director of MDEQ in August after her predecessor was forced to resign in the wake of the Flint crisis.

“Was this advertised and noticed in a way it should have been? Probably not, it appears to me,” Grether said.

Nestle’s request first came to wide public attention on Oct. 31, when Garret Ellison of The Grand Rapids Press reported on the multinational corporation’s plan to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps from a particular well by 167 percent. MDEQ received more than 3,000 emails after the news organization published the story, which prompted the agency to extend the public comment period by several months. MDEQ also now plans to schedule a public hearing on Nestle’s request, which would support a $36 million expansion of its Ice Mountain bottling plant in the state.

MDEQ has already issued a draft approval for the request.

“The issue is the privatization of a critical resource,” Jeff Ostahowski told MLive. The vice president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) objects to water bring diverted from watersheds that feed the Great Lakes.

An attorney who represented MCWC in a previous battle with Nestle over groundwater pumping told MLive the right of Michigan citizens to register their opinion on government decisions about water has been “diminished to the point of absurdity.”

“Water is public, subject to high ethical and legal duties of protection for Great Lakes, lakes and streams, wetlands, groundwater, fishing, recreation, farming and businesses here,” said Jim Olson, co-founder of the Traverse City-based freshwater advocacy nonprofit FLOW (For Love of Water). “The MDEQ’s handling of the Nestle application is as lax as the handling of the Flint water crisis. Nothing has changed.”

MDEQ’s latest crisis comes on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to eliminate mandatory newspaper notice for Clean Air Act permits issued by it and EPA-affiliated agencies like MDEQ. EPA eliminated newspaper notice (PDF) for actions taken under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2000.

Texas Legislative Committee Recommends Maintaining Newspaper Notice

texas-mapSupport for public notice in newspapers received another boost on Nov. 1, when a joint legislative committee issued a report (PDF) recommending that Texas continue to rely on newspapers to inform the public about official actions in the state. The Joint Interim Committee on Advertising Public Notices suggested the legislature “maintain the current print requirement” and called newspapers “a third party who both creates a lasting and reliable record of the notice and acts as a gatekeeper to ensure that governments post their notices correctly.”

Texas was the third state this year in which a legislative committee created to study public notice advertising ultimately recommended it remain in newspapers. Legislative committees in Wisconsin and Kentucky both issued their reports in support of newspaper notice in October.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the appointment of the joint committee in April, asking it to “ensure efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in the way public notices are posted.” At its only hearing, held on Aug. 18, “ none of the lawmakers (appointed to serve on the committee) voiced support for loosening notice requirements,” according to a report in the El Paso Times. Several newspaper industry representatives testified at the hearing, including El Paso Times Editor Robert Moore; Gainesville Daily Register Publisher Lisa Chappell; Beeville Bee-Picayune Co-Publisher Chip Latcham; and Texas Press Association (TPA) Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett.

Although the committee recommended that legislators continue to study the issue, it clearly indicated that government agencies should never be entrusted with the responsibility of providing public notice about their own activities. “(T)here may come a time when the print requirement no longer serves the needs of the people,” the report noted. “In such a circumstance, however, the necessity of placing the notice with a local, third-party media organization likely remains.”

The committee also cited newspapers’ online presence and their willingness to post public notice advertising on their own websites as additional reasons to retain the current statutory requirements.

The committee called on the legislature to distinguish the costs of public notice from other types of advertising, and to create a supplemental notification system through the state comptroller’s office. As TPA’s Baggett noted this week at a Newspaper Association Manager’s meeting in Arlington, Va., the first recommendation was necessary because government agencies in Texas lump all advertising costs together and have no way of knowing how much money they spend on public notice. Baggett also said the committee stipulated that the website and email notification system it is recommending for the comptroller’s office does not alone satisfy the public notice requirement.

Kentucky, Wisconsin Conclude Public Notice Reviews on Positive Note

wisconsinCommittees formed to review public notice laws in two states adjourned last month after showing strong support for maintaining public notices in newspapers. Wisconsin’s Legislative Study Committee on Publication of Government Documents and Legal Notices ended its review on Oct. 10, deciding to recommend only one change to a minor category of notices. Three days later, the Kentucky General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee ended its 27-month study with no changes.

“The final recommendation of the (Legislative Study Committee) unanimously supported the continued publication of public notices in newspapers,” said Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA), in an email sent to her members following the committee’s third and final hearing. “We believe that the committee conclusions and recommendations will benefit newspaper efforts to fight off attempts to eliminate public notice going forward.”

Bennett said the legislation recommended by the committee would slightly modify a category of notices required to be published by local government units. She said WNA has not opposed the change in the past and will review the legislation when it is drafted.

The review in Kentucky was prompted by a senator’s assertion that the state could save a significant amount of money by moving public notices from newspapers to government websites. The committee staff presented highlights from its 115-page report at its final hearing, which also featured testimony from Kentucky Press Association (KPA) Executive Director David Thompson.

The report showed wide variations in the estimated cost of public notice spending by individual counties, cities, and school districts. Nevertheless, even jurisdictions that spent the most, percentage-wise, devoted a mere fraction of their budget to public notice advertising, according to the minutes of the meeting. For instance, although the city of Sadieville, with a population of 313, spent less than half of 1 percent of its budget on public notice, Louisville/Jefferson County spent even less, just two-hundredths of 1 percent.

KPA’s Thompson told the committee that the state should continue to require public notices in newspapers to support government transparency and ensure taxpayers know how their tax dollars are spent. He said a change in the law and consequent loss of revenue would “be detrimental to weekly papers (who’ve told him) they would probably have to cut one or two employees,” according to a report in The Daily Independent of Ashland.

“Several committee members made comments and asked questions but none were convinced moving notices out of newspapers is best for taxpayers,” reported KPA’s member website.

Note: The photo illustrating this post shows Gregg Walker (left), publisher of The Lakeland Times in Minocqua and the Northwoods River News in Rhinelander, and Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Wisconsin Free Press Group, testifying in July before the Legislative Study Committee. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

California Governor Signs Law Redefining Public Notice Jurisdictions

california_flagCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown signed an omnibus bill on Sept. 27 that included comprehensive changes to the state’s public notice law. The changes brought clarity to jurisdictional issues relating to the publication of public notices in the state. The issues first became a concern almost 20 years ago, when the state reorganized its judicial system.

According to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which supported the legislation, the new law creates Public Notice Districts to define where local notices must be published. These new geographical designations will replace Judicial Districts, which were eliminated when the state’s trial courts were unified in each county in 1998. The law still requires notices to be published in newspapers of general circulation, and it automatically recognizes newspapers currently adjudicated to accept such notices.

The new law will take effect on January 1.

EPA Eliminates Mandatory Newspaper Notice for Clean Air Act Permits

epa_logo-jpgThe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it was eliminating the mandatory requirement to provide newspaper notice of permitting and implementation actions under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The rule, which will take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, The rule requires notification on EPA’s new “National Public Notices Website” and allows other agencies that implement EPA-approved CAA programs to publish notices on their websites as well.

The rule doesn’t prevent permitting authorities from supplementing notice on their own websites with newspaper notice. In addition, it doesn’t override state laws requiring state and local environmental agencies to use newspapers to notify the public about EPA-approved permitting actions under the CAA. In those states, new laws would have to be passed to eliminate the newspaper-notice requirement.

EPA responded at length to comments PNRC submitted earlier this year (PDF) in response to the agency’s original proposal. (See pp. 28-38 of this “Internet version” of the rule (PDF) obtained by PNRC.) EPA appears to have been most sensitive to PNRC’s argument that eliminating newspaper notice would disadvantage rural, elderly and low-income Americans without Internet access. But the agency swept aside those concerns by citing a 2010 study that showed 44 percent of citizens “living below the poverty line” use library computers.

“We do not dispute that some individuals may continue to rely on newspapers rather than the Internet to obtain information and that there may be greater concentrations of such persons in some communities,” the agency said. “However … this does not take away the added benefits cited by other commenters of reaching additional individuals through the Internet and providing notice continuously during the public comment period.”

EPA disagreed with PNRC’s contention that public notices should be published by independent third parties, not the government agencies whose actions are subject to notification. But rather than address this “fox guarding the henhouse” argument, EPA noted instead that “(PNRC) has not demonstrated that newspapers generally exercise independent editorial control over the content of legal notices or … otherwise seek to check the veracity of what the newspaper company is paid to print in these sections of its publication.”

EPA was persuaded by PNRC’s arguments that public notices published in newspapers can provide verification that is absent on the web, and that EPA.gov doesn’t presently include hyperlinks referring users to the agency’s public notices. In response to those concerns, EPA adopted recommendations that weren’t included in its original proposal, encouraging permitting authorities to “certify” e-notice dates and “include hyperlinks” to public notices on their websites.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new rule was EPA’s announcement that since mid-2015 it has been developing a “National Public Notices Website” to publish notices for all EPA actions subject to notice requirements. The agency expects the website to be completed and implemented by the end of the year, and it welcomed other permitting authorities to review the site for best practices. This announcement tells us, of course, that EPA began developing the site about six months before it issued its proposal to eliminate newspaper notice, but decided not to mention it until now.

The new rule follows the Obama Administration’s 2011 Executive Order requiring federal agencies to “end unnecessary printing” by “making information available online for the public.”

Q&A: Steve Key, Hoosier State Press Association

Steve Key

The Hoosier State Press Association has become a service bureau for public notices for the Indiana attorney general’s office. PNRC interviewed HSPA Executive Director Steve Key to learn more about the program.
 
PNRC: Steve, please tell us a little about how the program got started.
 
Steve Key: The Attorney General has the responsibility of notifying the public about unclaimed property, like uncashed dividends, escrow balances or property held by courts and other government agencies. In Indiana, the AG was seeking to eliminate the newspaper publication of unclaimed property lists and to replace them with postings to government websites. 
 
PNRC: What was their motivation?
 
Key: Publishing the list was a burden for them. They had to contact 92 separate newspapers and coordinate the publishing of 92 countywide unclaimed property lists. To say the very least, it wasn’t their core competency. From their perspective, it would have been much easier just to post the list on their website.
 
PNRC: So what happened?
 
Key: It all started with a legislative battle where we were on opposite sides. They tried to eliminate their responsibility to run newspaper ads. We prevailed. Afterwards, we sat down with the AG’s staff and offered to relieve them of their burden. They accepted the offer.
 
PNRC: How does the program work?
 
Key: The AG sends us their lists and HSPA publishes them in regional tabloids for insert in newspapers. The tabloids actually provide greater reach for the listed names and draws greater attention to the public notice advertisements as a stand-alone product than they ever received as ads in the classified section. Originally, the lists were distributed in three flights across the state, so that the AG could coordinate with additional advertising. The response when each flight hit the newspapers was so great, that the AG was forced to hire additional telephone operators to handle the crush of calls. That got their attention.
 
PNRC: What happened next?
 
Key: Over the past few years, the flights have expanded from three to five to smooth out the bump in calls to the AG and to eliminate their need to hire emergency part-time help. The AG is now a supporter of public notice in newspapers. In my view, it’s an example of turning an opponent into a proponent.
 
PNRC: My understanding is that HSPA now also serves as a service bureau for the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. Does that program differ in any way from the one with the AG? Can you tell us how?
 
Key: The monthly 92-county ATC meeting notices are merely a placement program for the state agency responsible for coordinating the county hearings. It’s a one-order, one-bill process for the state ATC and they have agreed to pay us a small per notice fee.
 
PNRC: How long have you been doing that program? How is it going so far?
 
Key: We’re into our second year and the ATC attorney recently told me the process is going “great” from their perspective.
 
PNRC: What has been the financial impact of these programs for HSPA? How about your member newspapers?
 
Key: Our members continue to publish the notices and collect the publication revenue. That wouldn’t be true if either the AG or ATC had eliminated the newspaper notice requirement. As to HSPA, we cover our costs with the ATC placements and make a profit from the AG contract — not for the placements, but for the service we do in creating the tabloids and coordinating the printing with one of our member newspapers.
 
PNRC: Have there been any challenges or downside to these programs?
 
Key: Unfortunately, the biggest challenge is with some of our members. We have the occasional newspaper that fails to run the ATC notice when requested, which forces us to scramble to get it run so the meeting doesn’t have to be rescheduled. The second challenge is collecting tearsheets in a timely manner. We’ll have one or two newspapers that don’t send them immediately, which holds up the billing for the month’s 92 placements. That can delay payment from the state, which triggers a credit hold by a newspaper, which requires us to call the publisher to explain the situation so a particular notice can be published on time. 

Customer service can be poor because some papers take public notice advertising for granted and don’t get excited about a $10.50 ad. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that lack of customer service can endanger the entire concept of public notice in newspapers.

Florida Governor Issues Order Requiring Immediate Notice of Pollution Incidents

florida_governor_rick_scott_2Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop new rules requiring public and private facilities “to provide notification of incidents of pollution within 24 hours to DEP, local governments and the general public through the media.” DEP quickly issued an emergency order increasing notification requirements for pollution incidents, as well as a notice of rulemaking to make it permanent after the emergency expires in 90 days. Under the new rules, facility owners must notify “local broadcast television affiliates and a newspaper of general circulation in the area of the contamination.” The rules significantly change the current “patchwork quilt of notice requirements,” according to an attorney writing in the Daily Business Review (registration required).

The governor’s action came in response to the furor raised when DEP for three weeks “kept quiet about a massive sinkhole at a Polk County phosphate operation that dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the (state’s) aquifer,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. Public officials originally defended the secrecy by noting that current law didn’t require the public to be informed about the incident. The governor said he will also propose a law next year to codify the new requirements.