February 20, 2017 Last Updated 12:32 pm

Wisconsin latest state to go after newspaper legal notices

States, especially those with Republican governors continue to propose ending the practice of requiring legal notices be printing in local newspapers – while the argument is generally about the cost savings, often it is also payback for aggressive news coverage

This is a battle that will continue on for a while: conservative governors going after the requirement that legal notices be printed in local newspapers. The latest one to target the practice is Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

“If you’re the kind of person who likes to get government information from the public notice section of your local newspaper, your reading menu could soon become rather thin,” wrote Steven Elbow of The Capital Times.

“That’s because Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal contains a provision to allow governmental units to publish an array of public notifications online rather than in newspapers, eroding the two-century-old compact between the state and newspapers to make government more transparent and accountable.”

Among the states that have recently considered the same move are Iowa and New Jersey. In New Jersey, the move was seen as a revenge move by Gov. Chris Christie who has been battling the press of late. In Michigan, the fight has been going on for a while with a bill introduced into the House of Representatives in 2014, and revived just this month.

The arguments for moving legal notices online make sense: the cost is lower, and more Americans get their news digitally.

“As the Internet replaces hard-copy newspapers, it seems we need to adjust our reporting requirements to reflect the new reality in the world,” said Rep. Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker) who introduced HB-4002 earlier this month.

“More people are sharing more information digitally every day, and government should be expected to keep up with these basic technological advancements,” Wisconsin Gov. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson told The Capitol Times.

“The savings achieved by government and our citizens by permitting legal notices to be posted on the internet will be very substantial,” Gov. Christie said of his proposal in New Jersey.

Newspapers and their associations counter with two points: the cost to the states is minimal considering modern state budgets, and legal notices publishing in newspapers promote government transparency.

That newspapers are likely to begin to lose these battles in the future seems clear to me, though maybe not to newspapers owners. Legal ad revenue may be a small part of a state’s budget, but it can be a very important revenue source for some smaller newspapers.

And it is not just local papers that might suffer. Some trade industry newspapers publish legal notices from contractors required to attract bids from subcontractors that are owned by women or minorities. Although it was over a decade ago, when I published a daily newspaper for the construction industry for McGraw-Hill, these notices were, along with our expensive subscriptions, the largest source of revenue for our publishing, dwarfing even display advertising.

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