If Florida lawmakers really want to piss off newspapers, they should pass bill (SB 292) allowing for online legal notices

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As the owner of web domains such as PinellasLegalNotices.com and such, I am waiting patiently for the day when the Legislature passes legislation allowing legal notices to be posted online rather than in costly newspaper ads.

Each year, some brave legislator attempts to pass a bill that would do this, but, because enough legislators know well enough to not pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel, the legislation always dies a quiet death.

This year it was Rep. Dennis Baxley, who argues that county clerks of court should be able to decide whether to continue the decades-old practice of publishing foreclosure notices in newspapers or placing them on non-newspaper websites. He described a state law requiring newspaper publication as “corporate welfare” for the industry and as an outdated monopoly.

“They’re up here protecting their interests,” Baxley said. “I’m trying to show you the future.”

But newspaper-industry officials said most papers already put notices online, along with publishing them in print. Also, opponents of the bill said many seniors, minorities and people in rural areas don’t have ready access to the Internet or don’t feel comfortable using it.

“When it comes to public notice, we should be aiming to cast the widest net possible,” said former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who represented a coalition that includes groups such as AARP and the NAACP.

Debates about publishing legal notices in newspapers have flared repeatedly in recent years, as the public has increasingly turned to the Internet for information and as government agencies have put more and more documents online.

Newspapers, meanwhile, have taken a financial hit as classified advertising has rushed to Internet sites, such as Craigslist. 

And that is why, if Florida lawmakers really want to piss of the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and all the newspapers which print those scathing editorials about them, they should pass SB 292, which does not goes so far as to allow just online noticing, but would require that when legal notices are published in newspapers, they also must be published online on a website maintained by the newspaper, as the government tries to move from paper publication to online publication eventually.

The measure, however, would still require publication in the physical newspaper. Past attempts have tried to shift the requirement directly to online publication, drawing opposition from newspapers and advocates for the poor.

With the continuing requirement for paper publication, the measure now is drawing support from the former opponents. The vote on the measure in the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday was unanimous. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett is now ready for the Senate floor.

Of course, any change to the legal noticing system still has a long way to go in the Legislature.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who backed the original bill, suggested opponents might have another motivation for voting no.

“People don’t want to upset their periodicals back home,” he said.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.