Monday, December 19, 2016

N.J. legislators considering Christie bill today to remove paid public notices from newspapers

UPDATE, Dec. 20: The bill has stalled because the speaker of the House has postponed a vote on it, the Newark Star Ledger reports. Dec. 22: Here's a rundown from the Public Notice Resource Center, with links to several stories, about the failure of the bill.

For several years, local newspapers have been battling efforts by local governments to reduce or eliminate requirements that they publish paid public notices in newspapers. Now a governor has entered the fray. New Jersey lawmakers today will consider a proposal by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to stop requiring legal notices to be run in newspapers, Kate King reports for The Wall Street Journal. Christie claims the move would save taxpayers money, but publishers and critics say it "is retaliation for the tough coverage of him," King writes.

"The measure could sap revenue from newspapers by allowing municipalities to bypass the publications and post the legal notices online themselves," King reports. "Publishers warn of hundreds of layoffs across the state if the requirement to run legal notices in newspapers is lifted." The 146 municipalities, many of them small towns, who responded to an email survey earlier this year by the New Jersey League of Municipalities "reported spending $1 million in total on legal notices last year, or about $7,200 on average."

Christie has called newspaper coverage of his decisions unfair and excessive, King writes. He said The Star Ledger in Newark has "been out to get me since I ran for governor in 2009," saying the "media’s coverage of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure investigation as being unfair and excessive." Democratic State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who was co-chairman of a legislative committee that investigated the lane closures, said Christie is “absolutely” seeking to punish the press. He told King, “It’s an attempt by the governor to silence his critics.”

In an op-ed piece published Sunday on his official account, Christie wrote: "For years newspapers have enjoyed a statutorily protected monopoly on the publication of a vast array of legal notices. Monopolies are always bad for our economy and, in this case, awfully expensive for our citizens." He said that since 90 percent of the state's households have internet access, and 100 percent of libraries have access, public notices can be accessed by residents for free.

Newspapers say they are still the best way to publish the notices, because citizens happen upon them in newspapers and don't go looking for them online. Most state newspaper associations have websites on which they publish public notices for free, and some states have laws requiring them to do so.

But Christie writes, "This bill, and their fight over it, unmasks their greed. In fact, their true disinterest in transparency and the public’s access to information through a free press—not to mention their undeniable hypocrisy — are fully displayed by the fact that this op-ed was refused publication. I was therefore left with no choice but to disseminate this opinion myself, which will no doubt be read by a vast majority of the population online."

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