Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Florida passes big slash to public-notice ads; newspaper-backed compromise has breaks for smaller papers

The Citrus County Chronicle in Crystal River, like
most newspapers, also puts public notices online.
The Florida Legislature has passed "the most significant piece of public-notice legislation in modern history," reports the Public Notice Resource Center, an advocate for the "legal ads" that have become a much more important revenue source for local newspapers as their advertising bases have shrunk. Even journalists sometimes forget that the ads and open-records and open-meeting laws are the "three-legged stool" of open government, says the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Florida is the first state to "significantly dilute the statutory requirement that notices must be published in print newspapers, but there’s a lot for the newspaper industry and residents of the state to like about the bill," PNRC reports. An alternative "would have moved public notice in the state from newspapers to government websites." The compromise bill passed the Senate bill Thursday and Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign it. The Florida Press Association supports it.
The Senate bill "authorizes state and local governments in Florida to publish most notices on newspaper websites in lieu of their print editions. Notices relating to property rights, like foreclosure and self-storage notices, must still be published in print," PNRC reports. "Before they can move their notices to newspaper websites, though, government agencies must first hold a public hearing and determine whether there is sufficient broadband access in the area to ensure that 'internet-only publication of governmental-agency notices would not unreasonably restrict public access' to the notices. Moreover, after an agency decides to move its notices to a local newspaper website, it still must publish a weekly notice in the print version of the paper informing readers that the notices can be accessed online."

The bill also allows publication of public notices in free-circulation newspapers, with "rigorous standards," PNRC reports. To qualify, they "must have a combined print and online audience equaling at least 10 percent of the households in the county or municipality publishing the notice. In addition, at least 25% of the audited print editions must be delivered to homes or offices and the newspaper must also must be available for pickup in at least 10 public outlets in the region. Newspapers must also be published for at least two years before they can qualify to publish notices.

"The bill gives a leg up to small papers by exempting newspapers in 'fiscally-constrained counties' from having to meet the audience requirements as long as they maintain a periodical permit issued by the U.S. Postal Service. But even newspapers outside of those 30, mostly rural, counties, will have more than two years before their periodical permit will no longer qualify them to publish notices and they will be required to meet the 10 percent audience standard instead."

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