It 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 Chris Christie’s effort to move all public notices in the state to government websites was withdrawn from consideration on Monday afternoon.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 was 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.”
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