Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Generation Z to the rescue: Harvard grads’ startup for public notices designed to save key income source of newspapers

By Buck Ryan
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

CHICAGO—Just when newspapers are suffering from declining circulations and plunging ad revenues, lawmakers in several states -- and even the Federal Communications Commission -- are trying to cut advertising income from public notices, which have become a much more important part of newspaper revenues.

As the legislative dust-ups rise and fall in places like Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, two young bloods are riding to the rescue, fresh out of Harvard University.

They hope to pick up new clients beyond their Kansas base for their startup company, enotice, which is described as "a digital platform intended to make public notices more accessible online while preserving print publication of the notices."

A public notice, also known as a legal notice or a legal ad, is required by law to be published in a local newspaper of record to let citizens know about proposed or past government actions or about legal proceedings, such as foreclosure sales and probate notices.

Legislators have attempted to cut government costs by lobbying for state laws and federal regulations that put the notices on government websites, not in newspapers.

Kevin King
"We just can’t let this industry die," entrepreneur Kevin King says as his face flushes with outrage. He grew up in Texas as a kid appreciating the importance and value of newspapers by reading the Dallas Morning News with his father.

King, 25, says his journalism experience is nothing compared with the storied history of the startup’s founder and CEO, Jake Seaton, whose family paper, The Manhattan Mercury in Kansas, goes back five generations. Seaton, 24, uses the words "broken" and "ludicrous" to describe what’s happening with public notices.

Seaton and King spoke at a Monday afternoon session at the 134th annual gathering of the Inland Press Association and the 117th meeting of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

(The organizations have merged; their new name, America’s Newspapers (newspapers.org), was announced Sunday evening. Now there are three national-level newspaper lobbying groups; the News Media Alliance is mainly for large dailies, and the National Newspaper Association is for weeklies and small dailies, most of which circulate through the U.S. Postal Service.)

Jake Seaton
Seaton told a story about the purchase of a $130,000 townhouse for one dollar at auction by the only bidder—the county clerk who placed the public notice announcing the foreclosure, in a newspaper that wasn’t the official newspaper of record.

Seaton invited King to be part of a 10-member team trying to solve the puzzle of preserving public notices as the domain of newspapers through computer science.

Conference organizers framed their session this way: "Protecting public notice revenue is a never-ending battle. Over the past decade, an average of 150 proposals have been introduced per year by state and local officials to change public notice laws. Often, these legislative efforts threaten the vital role newspapers play in distributing notice to their communities."

They were recommended as speakers by Richard Karpel of the Public Notice Resource Center, which reported this good news toward the end of the 2019 legislative season: "Bills were introduced in at least 10 states this year that would eliminate newspaper notice and move it to government websites. But with eight of those legislatures already adjourned and the two others set to wrap things up within the next three weeks, not a single one of those bills has even made it out of committee."

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