Legislators: consider repercussions of legal notice bills

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Legislators: consider repercussions of legal notice bills

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 09:25
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Hernando Sun Editorial Board

Our legislators are elected to fix problems in their local communities, and protect their local communities.  Their responsibilities can be equated to the physician’s responsibility to heal their patients and lookout for their well being. This is why we have a representative democracy, we do not have time to educate ourselves on all the issues, so we choose people to represent us.

When creating legislation, our legislators should keep in mind the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians:  Primum non nocere. First do no harm. They need to be fully aware of the repercussions that legal changes will have.

The number of bills that legislators must consider during the legislative session is mind boggling and unfortunately that is not conducive to minimizing potentially harmful unintended consequences of the bills that pass and are eventually signed by the governor.  Bills are lengthy and members of congress often rely on others to tell them the pros and cons. They cannot be expected to be experts in every area affected by legislation. They should however listen to the constituents who would be directly impacted by the legislation.

Currently House and Senate bills are being considered to allow local governments to post legal notices to their own websites in order to save money.  The bill will have negative implications across the newspaper industry in Florida which is made up of both large corporate members as well as small locally owned businesses.

It is a noble effort to create a bill that saves taxpayer money.  The question is will it actually do so? We must also question the unintended consequences by gathering input as well as data from those the bill will affect.

The Hernando Sun is publishing this editorial to communicate how the bill will affect Hernando County’s local newspaper if it should be signed into law as well as the community at large.  The Hernando Sun falls into the small locally owned newspaper category.

The Hernando Sun is a member of the Florida Press Association.  The FPA does an excellent job communicating the concerns of Florida newspapers, but The Hernando Sun is somewhat unique as it was started from scratch 5 years ago.  There aren’t many people starting community newspapers from the ground up and the experience has given us unique insight into this arduous process.

Part of forming the Hernando Sun, was the consideration of what type of publication we wanted to be.  Free or Paid? Monthly or Weekly? How would we distribute it?

There was quite a bit of research that had to be done in order to create something that would serve the area most effectively.  

A number of state representatives have criticized the fact that only paid newspapers carry public notices, making it costly to the public to receive legal notices.

Current Florida law defers to the post office to define what a periodical is.  A periodical which meets the requirements defined by the US Postal Service may carry public notices for a particular  Florida county as long as they publish at least weekly and have been entered into an in-county post office as a periodical matter for at least a period of one year.  The definition of a periodical by the post office requires newspapers to have a circulation with over 50% paid.  

By using the definition set by the US Postal Service, the state maintains credibility and accountability in who is able to publish legal notices.  It is questionable if the same amount of credibility will be maintained when local governments can post legal notices on their own websites.

Legal notice publication was a central factor when we considered what the Hernando Sun would be and how it would serve our community.  We saw public notices as a way to inform our community. Community newspapers all across the country carry public notices. In order to carry these notices we had to follow the rules set by the state.  It would have been a whole lot easier if free newspapers were allowed to carry public notices and more profitable.

Had we been able to carry public notices as a free newspaper, we would be able to print and distribute thousands more papers per week. This would have been a tremendous advantage when approaching advertisers.

However, accountability is at the heart of being a paid newspaper and why the post office demands that over 50% of the circulation is paid.  The post office must ensure that the mail being sent is actually something the recipient has asked for as they wish to minimize the amount of ‘junkmail’ in the system.

When a newspaper follows the periodical guidelines, circulation is verifiable and the newspaper is accountable for the circulation numbers they provide when asked by a potential advertiser.  The newspaper must submit their circulation numbers to the post office annually. The publisher must sign a sworn statement under oath that the numbers are truthful.

Unfortunately truthful circulation numbers don’t look as good to an advertiser when they are compared to that of a free publication that counts the number of newspapers they print as their circulation.  Free publications can inundate the news rack and claim those piled high papers which end up in the trash as readership.

It is also important to realize that not all newspaper subscriptions cost hundreds of dollars.  Weekly community newspaper subscriptions are usually less than $50 for the year. The Hernando Sun is $31.50 for an annual subscription.  

Part of why there are not so many start-up newspapers is because of the regulation in place by the state.  We chose to follow that regulation and now it may be taken out from under us. It is very difficult for businesses to function when there is an annual threat of drastic changes in legislation which impact a significant part of your business. 

Another reason why there aren’t many startup newspapers is the obvious: an online news website is a whole lot easier to operate and the barrier to entry is much less.  The perception is that the future is online and expending the resources to enter into a business that produces an antiquated product is risky. However the product is information itself, not the form in which the information is delivered.  Newspapers out perform local government websites when it comes to local content. Residents of an area go to the newspaper for information, whether it is in print or online.

Newspapers print because there is still a demand to do so and they are able to make it profitable. Printing also allows much more creative visual freedom than is currently available online.

Periodicals have a verifiable readership who depend on the information in the newspaper on a regular basis.  Do they reach every person in the area they serve- of course not. But they serve the people who care about their community and what is going on in the local government.  They look to the paper to bring them information on upcoming ordinances, rezonings and hearings while reading stories of local interest. It is all about local content. Newspapers excel at bringing local content to their readers and centralizing information of importance to the community, both in print and online.   A city or county website does contain content of local interest, but it is far from comprehensive. The job of the community newspaper is to collect local information. The newspaper succeeds in this job only with the support of their readers and advertisers. 

So why can’t the newspaper just publish this information for free in the interest of public good? This question is equivalent to asking a builder: why can’t you build a housing development for the homeless in the interest of public good for free?  The builder would go bankrupt.

The newspaper is a business.  In America we have this institution called capitalism in which businesses grow and become successful through hard work and ingenuity in the way they produce a needed product or deliver a needed service. 

Current public notice bills require local governments who choose to notice on their websites to mail out legal notices first class to residents who request this service.  It is our impression that the authors of these bills are grossly underestimating the number of people who will request the mailed notices. They say that these notices will be free for those who request them, but local governments could end up paying quite a bit to mail out these notices. A typical Hernando County legal notice costs less than $50 so if 100 people sign up to receive these notices this free option will actually cost the county more money.

The statute says the local governments can post on their website and not in a newspaper if it saves them money.  It will be hard for some local governments and municipalities to determine if they will truly save money without knowing how many people will request the mailed notices.

Newspapers have evolved with technology, creating dynamic state of the art websites to serve their customers who embrace the digital age.  For customers who haven’t the money to spend on technology or aren’t comfortable with it- the presses are still running in order to bring them the information they need.

The large repository of high quality content causes Internet search engines to rank results for newspapers highly. This makes it easier to find information on these sites since they typically rank above other sites in the Internet search results. 

If it is important for legal matters to remain within the public sphere of awareness in a transparent and efficient manner, then it makes sense for newspapers to provide that service and be compensated to do so.

If the Florida legislature does not believe that public notices should be easily accessible then it makes sense to allow hundreds of counties and municipalities across the state to just put them on their own websites and be done with it.

However- in the state where Sunshine Law reigns, that does really seem so bright?

 

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