The newspaper industry is fighting to keep its outdated government subsidy, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.
By John Bendel
All across New Jersey, governments and school districts are slashing costs to meet the enormous financial challenges they face. Police officers and firefighters are being laid off, road and highway improvements delayed, and funding for snowstorms and other emergencies curtailed. Nearly everyone has been caught up in the statewide budgetary storm of reduced services and higher taxes.
Yet one industry is fighting to remain immune from the hard financial decisions being made by each and every town and school district in the state. Using their editorial pages and considerable clout, New Jersey’s newspapers have put their own financial interests ahead of the taxpayers, including their own readers, by opposing legislation that would save money and make government more open and accountable. This legislation would give governments the option to publish legal notices online rather than in newspapers, as they’ve been mandated to do by law for decades. The change being fought so aggressively by the newspapers not only would save taxpayer dollars, but give hundreds of thousands more citizens access to the information – and in a more easily accessible way.
Using the public’s “right to know” as cover, the newspaper industry in New Jersey is fighting to preserve its own monopoly – a monopoly that’s being subsidized by upwards of $30 million a year in taxpayers’ money. The New Jersey Press Association and its member news organizations across the state are trying to hold onto the kind of no-bid contract they routinely condemn.
Last year, we saw New Jersey’s newspaper industry elbowing for space on Trenton’s Lobby Row to save their slice of the government pie. They lined the halls of the Statehouse – lobbying legislators in a bid to influence the process not for the public good, but for their own economic gain. They became just another special interest. And while they were busy arm-twisting legislators who will vote on the issue, they were using their editorial pages to intimidate those same legislators.
The bill was to be posted again for a vote last week, but Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver apparently succumbed to newspaper pressure and pulled it at the last minute.
A core principle of newspapers is never to confuse their editorial opinions and news content with their companies’ economic interests. In this case, that line has been crossed. And the newspaper publishers and editors crossed that divide in the interest of propping up a practice that is an anachronism in the modern world of the Internet. The law granting newspapers this particular monopoly was passed during the age of typewriters. It makes no sense whatsoever to preserve that law in the Internet era.
It’s especially disingenuous for the newspaper lobby to be stubbornly fighting the posting of legal ads online at the very time those newspapers are admonishing governments to post more information – everything from salaries to contracts to marriage licenses – on the Internet, on government websites already up and running. Recently the Bergen Record, Courier-Post and The Press of Atlantic City all ran editorials calling on governments to offer more documents and records online to benefit the public. Could it be that the newspaper industry is interested in transparency only when it doesn’t affect its own financial interests? You be the judge.
The benefits of allowing the posting of legal notices online are indisputable.
First, it greatly expands a notice’s exposure to the public, giving citizens greater, cheaper and more convenient access to legal notices. And the information would be available 24-7, in Spanish as well as English, in more easily readable form.
Second, the cost savings are clear. The state, county and local governments would post the legal ads on their existing websites, a simple process requiring no added expense; in fact, the scanning procedure is so easy it’s familiar to grammar-school students. Newspaper executives argue that the costs to taxpayers for running the legals in their publications have been overestimated since the private sector pays for some of the ads -liquor license applications, sheriff sales, and certain land-use matters for example. Why should the private sector fork over millions to newspapers when they could run the ads at no cost on government web sites?
Finally, while individual citizens must pay 75 cents to $1 to buy a newspaper – and much more on Sundays – they could access the same information online, at little or no cost. The fact is, online posting would save governments, individuals and businesses the millions of dollars they spend each year to pay whatever publishers charge for placing a legal ad in their newspapers.
Earlier this year in the Borough of Island Heights where I live, mandated legal ads cost the borough approximately $4,000. This is no small amount of money for a town struggling to make ends meet.
The newspaper lobby would have you believe that the proposed change would be harmful to those who do not use the Internet, especially seniors. Give me a break. The number of people using the Internet has exploded over the last decade – to the point where those who go online to learn the latest news, weather, sports scores and other information far outnumber those who buy newspapers. Going online has become second nature to a vast majority of Americans – including my fellow seniors.
By way of review, New Jersey laws mandate that individuals, businesses and government entities pay to publish legal notices in officially-designated newspapers. The New Jersey Legislature is considering amending the law to allow for publication of those legal notices on official state, county and municipal web sites in addition to, or instead of, traditional newspaper advertising. Technological advances and the growing abundance of government information online demonstrate the benefits of broad dissemination of legal notices on the Internet as an alternative to traditional newspaper publication. Amending the law to allow the option of posting legal notices on a web site enables residents throughout the state to view any kind of legal notice from any part of the state. Far more New Jersey residents have access to information available on the web than to any one newspaper designated to publish legal notices. While traditional newspapers were the only logical means of ensuring public access to information in the past, today any resident can gain Internet access either at home, through their jobs, at any public library, in most public schools, and at community centers and Internet cafes.
Newspaper publication imposes time constraints on the availability of legal notices that web site posting would not. For example, the law requiring publication of a legal notice of a proposed toll hike might only mandate that the notice appear for a certain number of days in one or more designated official newspaper. Because web sites have far greater capacities than a single print edition of a newspaper, the same legal notice could remain posted on official state, county and municipal websites for several months or more, allowing residents greater opportunity to find and view the information. Instead of being subjected to the painstaking process of going through individual back copies of a newspaper, a resident could go to a single web site to find the legal notice they are looking for.
Official web sites can be designed to allow flexibility in sorting and searching for legal notices. Those web sites could be required to provide users the ability to search for legal notices by date posted, the appropriate county or other geographic category, or the subject of the posting. A person who prefers searching for postings by scanning pages of newspapers would retain that option, while someone searching for a fairly specific posting – such as applications for liquor licenses in December, 2003 only – could search for and view only the relevant notices.
Amending the law to expand the available avenues for publishing legal notices affords governments, businesses and individuals a virtually free method of publishing notices that they have to pay for under the current system. Such a proposal will not limit access to newspapers or restrict anyone from continuing to publish legal notices in newspapers. Instead, it offers far greater flexibility in posting legal notices and increases the public’s access — at a vastly reduced cost for everyone.
John Bendel is an Island Heights, N.J. councilman, president of Bendel & Bendel Inc., and former editorial page editor of the North Jersey Herald News.