May 24, 2018
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Bill would cut legal ads from newspapers

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee will hear proposals to change how state and municipal public notices are advertised to Maine residents during a hearing Wednesday.

Supporters of the bills say they would save towns and the state considerable amounts of money, while taking advantage of advanced technology to disseminate information.

Critics — chiefly the newspaper industry — warned that the move would reduce government transparency, hurt the public’s ability to be informed and cause a financial hardship to the besieged print media sector, potentially causing job cuts.

“There’s no reason to change it; there’s no hue and cry,” said Anthony Ronzio, president of the Maine Press Association and editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal, during a press conference Tuesday that highlighted a new economic study of the newspaper industry in Maine.

Rep. Teresea Hayes, D-Buckfield, has submitted three bills on the topic. One would change the law so the state had to print notices in newspapers only when new rules were proposed and set for public hearing. It would eliminate the requirement to publish a notice a second time, when the rules are adopted.

Hayes said the state spends roughly $500,000 annually on such notices, placed in the state’s five largest dailies — the Bangor Daily News, Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald. By eliminating half of the required notices, it would save $250,000, she estimated.

Part of those savings would go toward setting up an online, searchable platform for the notices, said Hayes.

“It is my perspective that we have a variety of tools available to us now that we did not have when these laws were put into place,” said Hayes.

She submitted a second bill for the Maine Municipal Association. The bill would allow municipalities to publish public notices in newspapers that are distributed to a community by third-class mail — essentially, free advertisers. Now, those notices must be published in newspapers mailed second-class — subscription-based newspapers.

Municipalities also could publish notices through electronic distribution, if more than 50 percent of all households subscribe to receive those notices.

“To us it’s all about money,” said Eric Conrad, MMA spokesman. “We do not oppose daily newspapers in Maine, but municipal leaders across the state are turning over every rock they can right now to save money.”

Allowing advertising in the free weeklies and through other electronic methods would be a cost savings for communities, said Conrad. While he didn’t have exact dollar estimates, he put the number at “hundreds of thousands, if not more.”

The third bill would require further study of the public notices the state makes, with an eye toward reducing them

Hayes has submitted similar bills in the past. In 2008, it was passed by the Legislature, to be one of only a handful of bills vetoed by Gov. John Baldacci.

At the MPA press conference, Ronzio said he believed that many policy leaders focus on editorials and columns in newspapers, and because they disagree with them, see those publications as nonviable means of disseminating information — including legal notices.

“Newspapers are a lot bigger than the folks who write for them,” said Ronzio, noting workers including press workers, office workers, delivery personnel and others. “There’s a lot of people that make a newspaper happen.”

The MPA paid $3,000 for an economic impact study done by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland. It used data from the state’s seven daily papers, including the Bangor Daily News, and extrapolated data from the roughly 40 less-than-daily (mostly weekly) papers.

It found the industry had annual sales in 2010 of more than $154 million, and employed 1,766 people. It paid wages and benefits of $71.3 million and invested almost $7 million in new buildings, vehicles and equipment. Industry members paid about $7.5 million in state and local taxes.

Adding direct economics to indirect economics — through the spending of newspapers, its employees, its vendors and others — the study estimated the total impact of the newspaper industry as $307 million in sales, 3,200 for employment and more than $142 million in total income.

Ronzio said he had no way of knowing how many people read the notices in the papers. But he said an average 410,000 people read papers in Maine daily, and 522,000 on the weekend. And, he said, 85 to 90 percent of the readers read the classifieds, where the notices are.

Hayes said that anecdotally, her constituents have told her they don’t look at the notices in papers, and are “dumbfounded” at the state’s total costs for them.

“This does not rise to a priority to them; they know they have access through other medium,” said Hayes.

She said that newspapers have editorialized that the state needs to do a better job of cutting costs, and found it ironic that they fight these cuts. That said, she added that she wasn’t proposing these bills to harm newspapers.

“I didn’t set out to pick a fight with the folks who buy ink by the barrel,” said Hayes. “I value the newspapers, but if we’re going to subsidize them, let’s call it that, let’s not mask it as a service.”

Ronzio said the revenues from state and municipal notices was important to the industry because they were predictable and stable. He said he didn’t have specific numbers detailing exactly how much revenue is generated from notices.

MPA members have told him that cutting back on notices will cost them jobs. He noted that while the issue is an economic one for the state and communities, “it is equally a fiscal issue for our members, our industry.”

Michael J. Dowd, vice president of the MPA and editor in chief of the Bangor Daily News, said at the news conference that taking legal notices from newspapers and running them instead on a government website would hurt the public’s ability to know what policymakers are proposing.

“For any reputable newspaper, their fundamental duty is to keep government transparent,” said Dowd. “But we can’t get to all of it, it’s too big.”

That’s where notices come in, said Dowd. Having laws that require publication in newspapers maintains transparency, said Dowd.

“If they go away from newspapers, this will have a significant negative effect on government transparency,” he said.

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