Papers Protect Public Notices With Web Sites

By: Wayne Robins

Take public notices away from newspapers? Why, it ought to be illegal.

But it’s not. And just as commercial online operations such as Monster.com have taken a bite out of the newspaper classified-advertising market, the Net could be the vehicle to siphon the profitable and prestigious legal-notices business from newspapers.

One alternative proposed by some government entities — that public notices be posted on individual agency sites — would result in a Tower of Babel database that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to remain informed, according to state press associations. “The public would not know where to go to find a notice,” said John Fearing, the Arizona Newspaper Association’s (ANA) executive director.

Newspaper associations are leading the charge against this threat by creating their own Web sites and databases specifically for posting these essential public notices. ANA has a site, PublicNoticeAds.com (http://publicnoticeads.com), which has been used by nine other state newspaper associations: Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah. An 11th, Michigan, began participating this month, though the links weren’t all up at press time. And Georgia is considering it, according to Fearing. ANA began working on its database in 1996. Adapting it for different states, using ANA’s proprietary software, is relatively easy. “As long as we put in a state field, other newspapers could use it, too,” Fearing said.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association maintains a similar database on an affiliated Web site, MyPublicNotices.com (http://www.mypublicnotices.com). The site has plans to share its software with other state groups, including those in New Hampshire and North Carolina, according to MyPublicNotices.com (MPN) Manager Brian Gottlieb.

New Hampshire hopes to “launch soon,” with MPN, said Kathy Schwartz, new-media manager for The Telegraph in Nashua. “We are going to partner with Pennsylvania and join the MyPublicNotices.com database,” said Heather Pattle, communications director of the North Carolina Press Association. “Our internal timeline is to be integrated with their database by the end of the fiscal year [July 31]. That gives us the wiggle room we need to promote the site and help our newspapers learn how to upload the ads.”

The threat to public notices comes not only from the private sector but from government agencies. State legislatures as well as county and municipal governments make noise from time to time about posting notices on their own Web sites. The most benign rationalization over the years has been to save money.

Lurking, though, is the opportunity for politicians to punish the newspaper business, taking away this public service in retaliation for unfavorable coverage. “In Pennsylvania, public-notice legislation has been used as a retaliatory weapon against newspapers for publishing content that some politicians don’t appreciate,” Gottlieb said.

Newspapers in most states publish notices as a public (and profitable) service, as dictated by law. Yet one Pennsylvania legislative committee has authorized what Gottlieb called “an open-ended inquiry into the use, cost, and effectiveness” of publishing legal notices in newspapers, as currently required. “A couple of laws have nibbled at the edges of the statutory requirements,” he said. “We’ve been lobbying aggressively, and for the most part successfully, against them, but it has been a difficult and time-consuming effort.”

The challenge to newspapers’ exclusivity on public notices in Arizona came as early as 1995. “The Legislature attempted to eliminate one public notice — that of printing county-supervisor minutes,” said Fearing. “We compromised with them and said they should continue to be printed in newspapers so the public could have a printed record of them, but also [that] the newspaper that printed them would make them available electronically at no charge.”

It’s a big business for newspapers, though difficult to quantify. Gottlieb said that in Pennsylvania, public notices make up as much as 10% of newspaper classified advertising. And Arizona newspapers print approximately 16,000 public notices each month, according to Fearing.

Aware that all public notices could be vulnerable, newspapers may have learned from the Monster.com challenge to be aggressive in transferring valuable franchises to their online brands. “This [public-notice] business could be moving online, and the best case would be offering an online/print combination to deliver value,” said Bob Benz, general manager of interactive media/newspapers for the E.W. Scripps Co., based in Cincinnati. “There isn’t a crisis, or a trigger, but we need to be proactive rather than reactive. At first blush, a state newspaper association running point makes a lot of sense.”

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