Notices of public hearings in Sarasota County, Florida, will no longer appear as paid advertising in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which could be the canary in the coal mine for newspapers in the state, and perhaps beyond. The county commission acted under a new state law that is "the most significant piece of public-notice legislation in modern history," says 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.
Sarasota County will shift the notices on its own website, just as local governments all over the nation are lobbying their state legislatues to authorize. Newspapers argue that citizens won't go to government sites to look for such notices; governments stress cost. Sarasota County officials say they have averaged spending $200,000 a year on the "legal ads" and have hired a full-time employee to run the legal-ad program at an annual cost of $80,000.Florida Press Association President Jim Fogler told the commission that newspapwer publication provides third-party verification that state law is being followed, and "that allowing the county to post the notices would create a conflict of interest," the Herald-Tribune reports. “We believe that there’s definitely a transparency issue there,” Fogler said. Most state newspaper associations have websites where papers post public notice free of charge.
The public-notice news wasn't all bad for newspapers in 2022, but some papers are causing trouble for the industry by not running notices when they should be run. "It's an isssue that affects a small but significant cohort of papers, and it appears to be growing worse," the Public Notice Resource Center reports. "The scope of the problem is evident any time a group of press-association directors meet and talk about public notice. During a roundtable discussion at the Newspaper Association Managers convention this summer in Austin, the topic dominated conversation. One director after another complained about member papers that have little connection to the communities they serve and make it more difficult for their press association to protect newspaper notice in the state legislature. . . . The biggest offenders are corporate newspaper chains."
Noting papers' staff cuts, PNRC reports, "There are now multiple papers in every state that don't even employ a publisher, which attenuates local relationships and accountability at those publications. Those factors played a significant factor in the Florida Legislature's passage of HB 7049, and they threaten to torpedo newspaper notice in other states as well. If newspapers hope to continue to serve as the government's official provider of notice, they need to make it as easy as possible for customers to publish their statutorily required notices. It's as simple as that."