Since the inception of local newspapers centuries ago, classified advertisements have been one of the industry’s primary financial engines.
Then came the internet, and a website called Craigslist.
After that, the “better mousetrap” of online classified advertising has taken a significant toll on newspapers. According to a 2013 study, two business school professors concluded Craigslist bit a huge chunk of newspaper revenue between 2000 and 2007 — to the tune of $5 billion.
And as papers across the country struggle to stay afloat, the Florida Press Association is once again clinging to the last remaining remnant of a bygone era – public legal notices.
For years, Florida law requires that community issues — zoning changes, tax-delinquent properties, and other legal announcements – must be advertised in print. Under state law, such notices should run in a newspaper that is published at least once a week and is considered the county’s publication of record.
Local governments must issue public notices, giving citizens a heads up for meetings on a host of topics: budget amendments, judicial sales, zoning changes and more. This system has given Florida newspapers a monopoly, despite sagging circulation numbers as readers flock to online news outlets – many operated by papers themselves.
And on Jan. 24 – the third week of the 2018 Legislative Session – the FPA will make “their presence felt in Tallahassee,” advocating the status quo and signaling resurgence of a legislative battle over legal notices.
During the event – dubbed “Public Notice Day” – supporters will “educate” (read: lobby) legislators on the value of public notices and the role of the news media in the local community news.
But for the newspaper industry, that argument may be getting more difficult, particularly after last week, when Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida’s west coast and proved the indispensability of online news.
In times of emergency, internet-based resources – with their ability to inform large groups of people at once – outpace print media, which moves at a comparatively snail’s pace.
For example, while St. Petersburg was spared a direct hit, Mayor Rick Kriseman sent out “street teams” to keep residents informed in the “absence of power for TV news or internet.”
As Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times tweeted: “@Kriseman says with TV news unavailable to many, there is no way to keep informed. He’ll send “street teams” to inform #StPete. @TB_Times”
The indictment of print media was not lost on fellow Times’ reporter Craig Pittman, who responded: “Gee, if only there were some other news source that didn’t require electricity. Maybe printed on paper …”
Of course, what Pittman fails to take into account is a distinct lack of newspaper distribution during a Category 3 storm. No one is delivering papers when residents are evacuating to shelters, but they are glued to their smartphones for the latest news online.
In 2012, state lawmakers rejected a Republican-backed proposal to move legal notices of foreclosures from print to the internet, thereby breaking a decades-long monopoly.
As one of the “no” votes to move legal notices online, Rep. Shawn Harrison said he was trying to preserve the “the last bastion of protection” for Hillsborough County seniors who rely on smaller papers for their information.
“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” Harrison told the Times’ Katie Sanders.
Try telling that to Craigslist.
For print media, publishing legal notices is one of the last remaining cash cows, something the GOP-led Legislature knows well. But lawmakers are not ready (or willing) to deregulate the newspaper industry and modernize the legal/public notices system.
As FloridaPolitics.com reported earlier this year, bills from Rep. Richard Stark (HB 897) and Sen. Linda Stewart (SB 1444) sought to allow cities and counties to end certain newspaper print and newspaper website notices (budget amendments, construction contracts, and so on), and permit them to post such notices on city or county websites. Both bills died in committee.
But simply moving public notices from published newspapers to government-sponsored sites is not the answer.
The right move is to break the monopoly newspapers have on legal notices, expanding the ability to post legal notices to any recognized news outlet, either print or online-only.
If the Florida Press Association recognizes a news organization – which has reached a certain threshold for editorial best practices – it should be able to post public notices. That is the kind of deregulation Republican lawmakers should get behind.