W.Va.: Report Suggests Online Legal Ads

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Already buffeted by declining circulation and business ad revenues, West Virginia’s newspapers now faces a threat to another important revenue source: the legal notice ads placed by government agencies.

An audit presented Monday to legislators suggests that state, county and local government can together save an average of $3.5 million each year by instead posting those ads online.

Internet access has steadily grown in the Mountain State since 2002, the report said, from 320,000 households to nearly 420,000 last year. It eclipsed declining daily newspaper circulation in 2003.

Dailies have since dropped to just above 320,000 households this year, the audit found, while weeklies have also seen their numbers decline.

“Fewer and fewer West Virginians are getting newspapers, but it’s still costing the state millions and millions each year for these ads,” Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred told the interim Joint Committee on Government Operations and Commission on Government Organization.

Some 314 sections of state law mandate that government bodies buy newspapers ads for a range of legal notices. Among other purposes, they help inform residents of upcoming elections and all manner of hearings. They also advise interested parties of everything from surplus auctions to mining permit filings, and warn property owners about pending property re-evaluations and past-due taxes.

State law sets the costs of legal ads based on a newspaper’s circulation. It also requires certain ads to run as often as three times in as many weeks, and in two newspapers in a given area if they are of “opposite politics.”

All told, government agencies have spent $10.6 million on legal ads since mid-2004, including $3.8 million last year. The report to the interim committees recommends that lawmakers require state government and allow county and local government to post ads online instead.

The report estimated that once launched, a single Web site for all state legal ads would cost about $125 a year.

Phil Reale, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Press Association, said the report may not have considered the due process requirement that fuels many legal ad mandates. He also argued that newspapers remain an important source of local news and information, including legal notices.

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