By Stacy M. Brown
Special to NAHP
It hasn’t been the best of times in the print newspaper industry – if you’re so-called mainstream or legacy media.
Plunging circulations and the Internet have played a major role in the decline of advertising revenue at such noted publications as USA Today, Washington Post and the New York Daily News.
What’s more, a consistent source of necessary revenue is now in peril.
Legal and public notices placed by government agencies have served as income generators since the advent of newspapers, but large federal entities like the Department of Environmental Protection Agency and state and local governments in places like Illinois, Arizona and small Maryland counties want to stop putting the notices in newspapers, instead places them on agency-controlled web pages.
“We at SPJ have kept an eye on the phenomenon and we have opposed those efforts because with a locality placing a notice on its own site, you have a fox guarding the hen house,” said Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor-in-chief at Virginia Lawyers Weekly and president of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization that’s dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.
While newspapers who carry a household name like the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post might be losing circulation and government agencies may argue they are losing their reach, the biggest losers in the battle to keep public notices could be newspapers whose circulations are actually growing and whose influence is greatest of all.
“We’ve come to expect big declines every time circulation numbers for newspapers are released. So, it’s a shock to see one area where they are growing: Hispanic weekly newspapers,” authors of a recent Pew Research Center study said.
The 2015 study revealed that circulation grew by 4 percent for the Spanish-language newspapers examined by PEW. Further, Media Life Magazine noted that a number of Hispanic newspapers, including Impacto USA in Los Angeles, La Voz in Houston and the Orlando El Sentinel, have circulation of at least 120,000 per week.
It is these newspapers, in general, who have been able to reach countless Hispanic residents with legal and public notices even as many municipalities overlook minority-owned publications when placing notices, Media Life noted.
“This trend reflects the great appetite for reliable, local news among Hispanics in markets across the country, both big and small,” the study authors said.
Importantly, officials at Echo Media, the industry leader in direct response advertising, noted that major brands have jumped in to start advertising to the growing Hispanic market segment.
This brand-loyal audience not only controls a large dollar volume of revenue; it also represents an actively expanding market.
By appealing to the Hispanic community through newspapers that speak specifically to their needs, and in their language, advertisers build a bridge of trust and brand awareness that cannot be duplicated through English language channels, Echo Media bosses said.
The National Association of Hispanic Publications have reported that the circulation of audited Hispanic newspapers and magazines more than tripled from 2005 through 2013, and Hispanic publications have garnered more than $1 billion each year in advertising over the past decade, according to a 2015 report issued by Net News Check.
A companion Pew Research study concluded that the Hispanic population consumes local and neighborhood news at a higher rate than the overall population.
“Independent newspapers provide a watchdog function in this instance,” Fletcher, the SPJ president, said.
“And the fact that the notice is printed on paper is important – the notice is an unchangeable record that can be relied upon by officials and even courts if needed. If a notice is online, it can easily be changed with a few clicks of a mouse. And there are concerns and problems with archiving such notices that don’t exist when it’s printed,” he said.
Public notices are announcements from all levels and branches of government, from businesses and from individuals. They inform about government actions, environmental conditions and economic changes, according to mypublicnotices.com.
Public notices alert the community when the interests of family, neighborhood or businesses are affected by what others do and they invite residents to participate in the democratic process and in business opportunities.
Among the notices typically placed in newspapers are when a local restaurant applies for a liquor license; when government agencies are buying products made by local companies; a proposed tax increase on the school board’s agenda; assets are being distributed; the sewer authority issuing bonds; a neighbor applies for a permit to expand their home; the state treasurer holds unclaimed tax refunds; or a business or residential property is for sale.
Recently, however, legislators in several states have been reconsidering the laws that specify newspapers as the only appropriate way to disseminate this information.
Earlier this year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2447, which allows for the creation of an online database for business notices, a move opposed by the state’s newspaper association.
In Michigan, House Bill 4183 would require that public notices be published solely online, changing the legally required practice of townships, villages, cities and counties paying to publish some notices in print newspapers serving their residents. Online-only publication now would allow TV and radio stations to compete for contracts.
In Maryland, Montgomery County and state lawmakers claim publishing public notices in newspapers is an ineffective, costly and obsolete process, and so they’re pursuing state legislation to end the requirement, according to published reports. Other states considering changes to their public notice laws include Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.
City of Rockville spokesperson Marylou Berg said the city spends about $20,000 annually on the notices. Montgomery County Finance Director Joseph Beach said the county has spent about $7,500 on legal notices in fiscal year 2016, which began last July.
The county paid the two newspapers $14,000 in fiscal year 2015 to publish the notices.
“The proposed rule would modernize public notice requirements to allow permitting agencies to provide public notice of a pending permit action electronically instead of in a newspaper,” EPA Spokesman Ernesta Jones said.
“We call this e-notice. The rule also proposes that for EPA-issued permits, the public notification would shift from newspaper-based to e-notice and the proposed rule does not change any requirements that dictate the type of actions that require public notice, and when the notice must be provided. It also does not change other public participation requirements,” Jones said.
To reduce potential confusion about where the public should check for permit notices, the proposed rule would require state permitting agencies to use a consistent method of providing public notice, he said, noting that, as an example, if a state permitting agency decides to use e-notice by posting any of its permitting public notices on a website instead of in a newspaper, it would have to post all of its permitting public notices on that website.
“State permitting agencies would be free to continue providing public notices in the newspaper if they choose to do so – as long as they keep the notice method consistent,” Jones said. “Many permitting agencies already provide multiple forms of public notice, which EPA encourages,” he said.
However, on the federal level, some lawmakers said they will continue to support newspapers in their overall battle to secure advertising – even public notice placements – from government agencies.
“It is important that news outlets and media companies owned or published by people of color with a primary mission to serve communities of color have the same opportunities as other media outlets—especially as African Americans and Hispanic Americans continue to grow in number in our country,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.), reiterating her stand that advertising in newspapers is essential for the millions of readers in minority communities.
“Virginians expect the activities of government to be conducted openly, fairly and transparently,” said Delegate Riley E. Ingram (R-Hopewell). “Newspapers, both daily and weekly, continue to have a prominent role in the maintenance of these principles throughout Virginia’s communities.” Ingram said.
Also, many argue that the notices not only hurt newspapers but also a number of minorities who may not have proper access.
“Only about 50 percent of American Latinos have home broadband access. That number drops below 40 percent for Spanish-dominant Latinos,” said Jessica J. González, the executive vice president and general counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Pasadena, California-based media advocacy and civil rights organization.
“The National Hispanic Media Coalition has been working to bridge the digital divide because we understand that our community is missing out on important opportunities, such as the EPA notices and others having to do with healthcare, education, employment, and the list goes on,” González said.
“It is a national imperative that the United States connect 100 percent of American families to broadband before it moves to issuing important public notices in online only formats. Until then, government agencies must, in addition to internet notices, use newspaper, radio and other widely-available resources to disseminate important public service announcements,” she said.
Ultimately, the SPJ has viewed this as an issue of the public’s right to know and, if a notice is in a newspaper, it is easy to locate and likely widely circulated, Fletcher said.
If the notice is on a website, the person seeking the information must go find it, if he or she has a computer. Older and less wealthy citizens may not have the equipment to access those sites – for them, the online notices are a failure, and they may relate to matters of great public importance, he said, adding that there might be a significant zoning change to be discussed at a public hearing, or a discussion of how public tax dollars will be spent.
“The bottom line is that we believe that placing notices in independent newspapers is the best way to achieve the purpose of a public notice,” Fletcher said.
“To give citizens a heads-up that a government is about to take some action that will impact them and to provide the opportunity to have public input on governmental decisions.”