Public notices in local newspapers have long helped hold government agencies accountable and news consumers make well-informed decisions. And they also used to be a reliable source of revenue for newspapers, but as traditional advertising declines in newsrooms, public notices could be in danger of sharing the same fate.
Enter Jake Seaton, a fifth-generation newspaper family member who owns the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury. Seaton recently founded Column, a company which simplifies the public notice placement process for local newspapers and their clients. The service rolled out at the start of the year and publicly launched in September.
The platform reduces operation and labor costs of placing public notices by allowing government officials and lawyers to draft, schedule and proof their public notices via an online portal. Newspaper publishers can receive orders, manage payment and generate digital affidavits in the same portal.
The idea began in 2017 when Seaton reached out to members of the media in Washington, D.C. that he admired. One of them was David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance. Seaton explained to Chavern he was looking for opportunities where he could make an impact in the industry. To his surprise, Chavern told him public notices.
So, Seaton spent the next two years studying the topic and trying to come up with a solution. He spoke with his customers to try to understand the process they went through to comply with notification requirements and what he found was an inefficient system that relied heavily on email, faxes, phone calls and snail mail just to facilitate the print publication and distribution of the notice. The whole process would take hours, Seaton said. Now Column simplifies the process down to just a few clicks.
The service is offered to publishers at no cost, which Seaton said is in line with the company’s mission to protect the revenue stream for local news and ensure that they succeed. Column charges governments and legal services a small fee for each notice published through the platform based on the size and publication cost.
The company has a full-time team of nine employees, a few independent contractors and is advised by media experts including Chavern; Nancy Gibbs, faculty director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; and Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post.
According to Seaton, Column already has a few hundred publishers on board, each having a variety of clients and resulting in thousands of governments and law clients. In addition, Column announced a partnership with the Washington Post, and the company also switched over the state of Colorado to use its services.
Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, recommends that newspapers utilize Column’s full platform because “(it) has the promise of combatting the customer complaints our industry suffers from due to inconsistency, lack of quality assurance and cumbersome manual procedures.”
Seaton explained that creating a product like Column is something that ties into his family’s legacy.
“The persecution of journalists was (to my grandfather) one of the biggest threats that faced the news business,” he said. “For me, the digital transition and the development of issues, like public notices, is the biggest challenge facing this industry in (my) generation, so the work that we’re doing now is a continuation of what my family has done and that’s something special.”
For more information, visit column.us.
Editor's Note: This story has been edited.