Looming Loss of Legal Notices Revenue Due to Internet

By: Steve Outing

A common theme in my coverage of Internet publishing in this column is the threat that it poses to traditional media, especially newspapers. Certainly, there are many opportunities for newspapers to profit in cyberspace, but so are there dangers.

One such danger is the legal notice publishing business, in which newspapers are chosen as "papers of record" and awarded the right to publish legal notices from state or local government agencies (for example, a Notice of Deliquent Properties list, or notices of public meetings). This isn't a particularly important form of revenue for large metro papers, but for some small-town "newspapers of record," publishing legal notices is a significant portion of their revenues.

Life-threatening issue?

According to the authors of an upcoming book on digital archiving issues, the Internet may upset this long-standing situation, such that small newspapers conceivably could lose revenues from legal notices -- enough so that their livelihood might be threatened, in some cases.

Shannon Martin, a journalism professor at Rutgers University and co-author of the upcoming "Record Newspapers in a Digital Age: From Hot Type to Hot Links" (to be published next spring), points out that the "newspaper of record" system common in the U.S. long has rewarded certain newspapers with this "plum." A chosen newspaper has to demonstrate that it has widespread distribution in its circulation area, so that most members of the public will be assured of seeing published legal notices. Sometimes, this designation may be doled out by legislators to favored publishers.

Each state has different laws regarding what consistitutes a "newspaper of record," but generally they are written with specific requirements that make the largest daily newspaper(s) in an area the beneficiary of the legal notices revenue.

Whether the newspapers will get to keep this revenue is questionable. According to Martin's co-author, Kathleen Hansen, an associate professor journalism at the University of Minnesota, some government agencies will start to publish lengthy public notices on the World Wide Web on their own Web sites. Rather than a public agency publishing 10 pages of legal listings in a daily paper -- as it might have done for each of the last many years -- the agency might simply take out a 1/4-page print ad pointing the public to its Web site, Hansen says. The publisher is simply out of luck as a multi-page annually recurring government print advertising deal shrinks dramatically.

On the flip side of the coin, newspapers may wish to publish such public records on their Web sites rather than or in addition to in print. A problem arises, however, Hansen says, because "newspaper of record" laws generally specify that a qualified publication have a certifiable subscription base. Most Web newspaper services, of course, do not charge for access and thus do not have what technically can be termed "subscribers." Martin says that the Wall Street Journal's Web site, which charges an annual subscription fee, is one of the very few newspaper online operations that would potentially qualify for its online subscription numbers to be added to its print circulation. Martin says it's unclear whether states will accept online newspaper sites' users as part of the total that will qualify a publisher for "newspaper of record" designation.

Indeed, the whole concept of "newspapers" of record may have to be adjusted in the coming years to accommodate the growth in use of the Internet and online services -- both because government agencies want to publish electronically (thus saving public money), and because newspapers are doing so, as well.

Inevitable rewriting of laws

The other factor is competition for newspapers of record from electronic competitors. The Midwest U.S. telecommunications company AmeriTech, for example, has made inroads with some local government agencies in its region, in which it sets up an electronic publishing system for legal notices. In effect, points out Hansen, that company would like to take the legal notices publishing business away from newspapers, which have held a monopoly on the practice for so long.

Predictably, state newspaper associations and organizations like the Court and Commercial Newspaper Association are fighting this competitive battle, taking the issue to court to block electronic competitors. But as Hansen points out, new competitors looking for a piece of this business will attempt to have the laws rewritten -- laws that were written long ago and do not reflect today's digital reality.

As we have seen before (particularly with classified advertising), the Internet is threatening to take another lucrative business away from being the sole domain of newspapers, and open it up to electronic competitors.

Contacts: Kathleen Hansen, k-hans@maroon.tc.umn.edu
Shannon Martin, shmartin@scils.rutgers.edu


In my last column about the need for news Web sites to record their pages in contextual format (and not just archive text and images), I neglected to mention a project to "archive the Web" called The Internet Archive. The project is the brainchild of Internet veteran Brewster Kahle, and its purpose is to build a "digital library" of the Internet by capturing Web pages, Usenet newsgroup and mailing list discussion archives, etc.

This broad-based effort at providing an archive of the early Internet does not replace the need for an historical archive of the online news industry, however. But it is an example of an initiative that has created the technology to capture a slice of the Internet as it existed at a particular point in time.

Web page archiving solution?

After reading my last column on Web page archiving, David Sklar of Student.net Publishing wrote in to point out that it is possible to create a system that easily archives Web page presentation.

"Our production system, developed internally, uses CVS (http://www.cyclic.com), a powerful version control system to track edits to all of our pages. This gives us the ability to reproduce pages as they were in any state or at any time since their creation, as well as the ability to look at a log of all changes to any page and see who made what change when.

"I don't know what production systems others are using, but I am honestly shocked that a document-flow system that you might pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for wouldn't offer this capability. CVS, by the way, is free."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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