Friday, February 21, 2020

Attacks rise on paid public notices, an increasing part of newspapers' income; Ky. legislation creates rural-urban split

UPDATE: The House budget committee chair put, in a bill accompanying the state budget, language that would allow cities, counties and school districts to publish financial statements and bid notices online, "a measure critics say could put some small Kentucky newspapers out of business," Deborah Yetter reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Newspapers' battle to preserve public-notice advertising by governments, an increasing share of revenue as other ad sectors decline, is ramping up in several state legislatures. In some, President Trump's attacks on the news media are taking a toll, the Public Notice Resource Center reports.

"Bills have been introduced in at least seven states so far this year that would move most public notice from its traditional home in newspapers to lightly visited government websites," the center reports. "And at least of few of those bills were introduced by legislators who have had fraught relationships with the newspapers that cover them."

David Thompson
That ire tends to be aimed at larger newspapers, but such papers figure in the debate in another way: Their high ad rates are a greater burden for small governments in metropolitan areas. That has been illustrated recently in Kentucky, where the state House passed a bill on the subject Wednesday. And the way Kentucky has dealt with the issue could be a template for other states. "It's a workable solution," Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson told The Rural Blog.

The bill would allow government entities in counties with more than 80,000 people to publish their required notices on a special government website, with a small notice in the newspaper. That follows an approach that a Northern Kentucky senator followed in 2018, inserting language into the state budget that made a similar, temporary law for counties of 90,000 or more. The number was designed to capture the three Kentucky counties that border Cincinnati, home of the Cincinnati Enquirer, owned by Gannett Co., which also publishes weeklies in the three counties.

This year's original bill would have applied statewide, and the lobbying groups for cities and counties backed it, perhaps seeing that the political winds were blowing their way; the state House switched from a Democratic majority to a Republican supermajority in the 2016 elections, and stayed that way in 2018. Most votes for the bill came from Republicans; most "no" votes came from Democrats.

When the bill was introduced, KPA told its lobbying adversaries that it would fight the bill hard, but would be willing to set a population threshold in a permanent law, Thompson said. It offered 70,000 and compromised at 80,000, making the website option apply to 10 counties instead of nine.

Thompson said he did not know of another state that uses a population threshold. He and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Miller R-Louisville, said the approach is based on the fact that counties of less than that size are less likely to have broad access to, and adoption of, broadband internet service. But they both made clear that the battle will go on.

Pew Research Center data and chart
“We often have to walk before we can run, and this is the first attempt to move us down the path toward the realization that times have changed in the world in terms of how people get their news and how they communicate,” Miller told the House. He cited a recent Pew Research Center poll that found only 13 percent of Americans said they got their local news from printed newspapers. He actually said 15%, but his comment was misleading; he didn't say "printed" and he didn't note that 37% said they get most local news "online," mostly from a news website or app. Many such sites or apps are operated by newspapers, and the primary referral sources for such sites are social media.

Those numbers is driven by America's primarily urban population, most of which is served by hometown TV stations. Newspaper readership is higher in rural areas, and Kentucky is one of the more rural states. But Thompson said he expects the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties to "keep coming back. They have said this is probably going to be an annual thing."

And just because a bill hasn't moved doesn't mean that public notices are not under threat, because language can be added to a must-pass bill at the eleventh hour, Thompson said: "I keep warning the other states . . . watch your budget."

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