Newspapers in jeopardy as New Jersey pushes to divert legal ads
New Jersey on Monday could become the first state to stop requiring legal notices to be printed in newspapers, spreading them out instead to government-owned websites.
Backers of the plan, which was approved by Senate and Assembly committees Thursday, say it could reduce government spending and save money for private entities now required to print public notices for things such as foreclosures.
Critics say it would diminish government transparency and damage the already struggling newspaper industry by potentially denying it tens of millions of dollars. Some contend that punishment is the ulterior motive of Gov. Chris Christie, who advocated for the bill to put on a fast track along with unrelated legislation approving raises for various officials and letting him sign a book-deal contract.
“I think this bill is targeted at getting back at the large papers — the Asbury Park Presses, the Gannett group, the Star-Ledger — who have taken the governor and his people to task over their actions, and I think it is clearly a vendetta that they’re taking out,” said James Manser, owner and publisher of the Coast Star and Ocean Star, which cover Monmouth and Ocean counties.
But smaller community weekly newspapers will be the bigger victims, Manser and others said.
Stephen Parker, co-publisher and general manager of the New Jersey Hills Media Group, says weeklies such as his group of 14 newspapers have a 5 percent profit margin but would lose 15 percent of their revenue if the bill becomes law.
“While this legislation may have been intended to be a thumb in the eye of the dailies, for weeklies this bill is a shotgun blast to the chest. It’s an existential threat to our survival,” said Parker, whose papers serve 55 communities in Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties.
For daily newspapers, legal ads appear to account for about 7 percent of their revenue.
“I do believe strongly that it is a resource that government, business and community members use, need and can’t get anywhere else in an easy, one-stop shopping place,” said Paul Grzella, general manager and editor for the Courier News and the Home News Tribune.
The bill has existed in the Legislature since 2004, when it was passed by the Assembly at the time Jim McGreevey was governor. It stalled in the Senate, headed by then-Senate President Richard Codey.
While some people who testified questioned Christie’s motives for the bill, lawmakers did not.
“Yeah, I can see where he can kind of have some hard feelings about you, as you do about him. But that has no bearings on whether this bill should or should not be approved,” said Sen. Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex.
The bill itself could lead to vengeful threats by local politicians, said Richard Vezza, publisher and editor of The Star-Ledger.
Supporters of the plan say one of its best features is that it wouldn’t require all legal notices to move online. Each government would decide, so in theory, small towns where it doesn’t make economic sense to hire the staff and buy the resources to self-publish ads would keep printing them in local newspapers. In reality, that’s not what would happen, Vezza said.
“Worst aspect of the bill,” Vezza said. “I grew up and started my career in Hudson County, so got sharp elbows. How many government officials would call me up and say, ‘You know, I give my legals to your paper, to The Star-Ledger. Do you see what so-and-so wrote? Better tell him to stop writing that or I’m pulling my legals.’ You’re going to put a club in the hands of every official to club the newspapers.”
“Making it permissive makes it worse,” said Dave Pringle, New Jersey campaign director for Clean Water Action. “You’re empowering mayors to threaten newspapers by threatening to pull funding. Whether they make it a direct threat or implicit threat, the threat is there. It’s empowering bullies.”
The industry warns weeklies will close and around 300 people could lose their jobs, at both daily and weekly newspapers, if the bill becomes law.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said one reason to move legal ads out of newspapers is that fewer people are reading them.
“The serving of public notice is critical to democracy, but we are not serving public notice if there is no circulation,” Burzichelli said.
Thompson said printed legal notices don’t reach a wide audience and that people or businesses with an interest in them will find them if they move online.
“In my lifetime, I have yet to read one legal notice. In my lifetime, I have yet to have one person come to me and talk to me about something they read in the legal notices,” Thompson said. “So there’s not millions of people that read legal notices.”
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said he saw dozens of people in the committee room Thursday using laptops, cell phones and tablets but very few with what he called “dead tree media.”
“I favor having newspapers around, but not at the expense of continuing a process that really has long since gone out of any real necessity for it,” Carroll said.
“This is not easy. None of us are glad that newspapers are struggling. This is a problem,” Burzichelli said. “When I came to the Statehouse, there were probably in excess of 20-plus reporters on press row or more. Now there’s virtually only a few people there.”
Only one lawmaker voted against the bill Thursday, though two others voted to abstain.
“If we pass this bill today or Monday, we are going to be pouring water on a drowning industry,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer. “And we will also be defying the Constitution by taking away freedom of the press at a time when we need greater transparency and open government to try to restore the faith of the people who are questioning our government today.”
“I’m not quite sure what’s more troubling,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, “A free press which is dependent upon governmental dollars in order to survive, or a free press which is further reduced in its size and quality because of lack of funding?”