N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

screenshot of legalnotices.org
A legislative committee turned down efforts to stop requiring local governments to place legal ads in newspapers this week.

Polls in North Carolina of county plus town and city governments show local governments spent about $6 million last year on legal ads and public notices, according to the Associated Press.

Discussions about the notice requirements ran hot and heavy among Charlotte Twitter people. Discussions centered on the print and online circulation numbers for established media as well as the lack of online access for specific groups.

The Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists will likely put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting.

Here’s the full story on legal notices in newspapers in North Carolina.

TriadWatch has used freedom of information requests to gather some numbers about public notices and legal ad spending. Here’s part of what they found, matched up with audited print circulation numbers for the newspapers that benefited:

The City of High Point spent $49,000 on public notices in Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

The High Point Enterprise had a Sunday print circulation of 18,300, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31, 2011.

The City of Greensboro spent about $128,000 in public notices in two local newspapers since January 2010.

The Greensboro News and Record, which has received about $96,000 from the city since January 2010, has a published Sunday print circulation of about 86,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Online numbers would be higher. (I don’t know if they provide legal ads online.)

The Carolina Peacemaker, which received about $31,000 from the City of Greensboro, appears to have a print circulation of about 5,000, weekly, though those numbers could be out of date. On its own site, it lists a readership of 60,000, likely including online numbers.

Circulation numbers, in print and online, are difficult quantitative measures of reach these days. Some news organizations have free print products with large circulation numbers not included in the ABC numbers. Many news organizations measure their online reach in ways that are not comparable. Much of the Twitter discussion in Charlotte the past week centered on these numbers; I’d suggest moving the conversation up a level or two to look at all the possible futures of public notices before focusing on specific ways to compare influence and reach.

Noted by TriadWatch: The Charlotte Observer partners with legalnotice.org to display legal notices in a somewhat searchable way, supported by advertising. The screenshot above is from a search through the organization. The “About” page gives little details about the company. The company also provides subscriber services.

Worth consideration: More granular, searchable, open information could enable more detailed search information, provided in more accessible, easy-to-use interfaces, available to more readers and new companies, perhaps even local startups.

Here’s traffic data from Alexa for legalnotice.org:

“There are 829,298 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than Legalnotice.org. Visitors to the site view 2.9 unique pages each day on average. Visitors to the site spend approximately 45 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. Search engines refer approximately 22% of visits to the site. Legalnotice.org has been online for more than twelve years.”

Also from Alexa: 170 sites link in to legalnotice.org, and its traffic rank in the United States is 143,925.

For this legislative session, the issue is off the table. But it will arise again.

We should talk more and include experts in a variety of fields. We need to move beyond thinking the issue of the cost of public notices and legal ads is merely two-sided, with established media on one side and with cash-strapped taxpayers and governments on the other.


4 responses to “N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

  1. There’s another angle on this, which hasn’t been discussed much. In some communities, there is no viable print product with wide reach that could reasonably meet the spirit of the legal notice requirements.

    Let’s remember the goal: The public notice law is there to ensure that a wide audience of local readers has access to legal notices. While it currently requires print publication, that may be outdated in some places.

    In Davidson, the closest qualifying paper is a weekly in the next town over that has little or no circulation in Davidson (I hear it sells a dozen copies here). But it meets the letter of the law. So the town of Davidson spends thousands of dollars a year on ads that nobody in town will ever see. The scare tactics of the print-press lobby just don’t hold water here.

    The legislation under consideration would allow towns and counties to use their own websites. That does not strike me as an unreasonable option. One of the newspaper industry arguments against the bill is that some people or some communities may not have internet access and would be cut off. This assumes people have access to the newspaper where the notices are published. (Again, what if your town publishes its legal notices in a publication that doesn’t circulate in your town? Or what if the majority of citizens don’t subscribe to papers?)

    Once, newspapers were a reasonable option, because household penetration exceeded 80 or even 100 percent (more than one newspaper per household). But today, newspaper penetration is one-third of that, and in some communities is below 20 percent. Newspapers (the printed version) are no longer the mass medium they once were. In fact, internet penetration in most communities today far exceeds that of newspapers. So it’s not really fair to say that ending newspaper publication of legal notices is the end of the world. A good publicity campaign can ensure that citizens know that their town or county website is the place to go for legal notices.

    There also may be other options. Instead of fighting to keep an outdated law that protects legacy print media, we as a new industry should be pushing for a law that opens this up to legitimate community-based online sources. For many newspapers, online sites now have more readers than print products. We should be fighting for a law that requires online notices on general interest local websites. This could include the websites of daily newspapers, weeklies, etc. (Of course what’s missing right now, though, are standards for what amount of web traffic would be required and how it should be measured.)

    Of course I have a vested interest: I publish a daily online news website in our town. According to our traffic numbers, we reach a large percentage of households in Davidson, and we could be a viable alternative for legal notices. But that’s not allowed under the current law and would not be required under the proposed legislation in NC right now. And it’s not clear whether the town would choose to post legals on our site.

    If the newspaper lobby would consider adapting to a new local information reality, one that includes online, we’d still have strong arguments to make. The most important would be to address the question of whether town or county websites are adequate. In Davidson, town leaders acknowledge that DavidsonNews.net reaches more readers than the town website. If the test were who reaches the most local citizens, our site would be the logical solution. I’d love to see a bill with language that requires online publication and, if available, in an online community publication that meets (yet to be determined) traffic standards.

  2. The next SPJ meeting is at 11 a.m. March 21 at Bistro La Bon in Plaza Midwood. I doubt there’s enough time to bring all the right people together there, but perhaps we can start discussions and plan a larger gathering that specifically invites government folks and maybe some coders.

    Funny, David: What’s good for your business is probably not good for my business. But both of us agree existing laws could be much better at getting civic information to people.

  3. Pingback: Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads | Global Vue

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