Legal notices system still needs to be reformed

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Having observed people helping one another in friendly, social, and trusting communal ways on the Internet, while feeling isolated as a relative newcomer to San Francisco, Craig Newmark decided to create something similar for local events. So in early 1995, he began an email distribution list to friends.

Soon, word of mouth led to rapid growth. The number of subscribers and postings grew rapidly. There was no moderation and Newmark was surprised when people started using the mailing list for non-event postings. People trying to get technical positions filled found that the list was a good way to reach people with the skills they were looking for. This led to the addition of a jobs category. User demand for more categories caused the list of categories to grow.

Not long after, community members started asking for a web interface. Newmark registered “Craigslist.org”, and the website went live in 1996.

And with that, one of the financial legs holding up the newspaper industry — classified advertisements — was kicked out from underneath it. A 2013 study by two business school professors concluded that Craigslist took a giant bite out of newspapers’ revenues — some $5 billion between the years 2000 and 2007.

Frankly, the newspaper business has yet to recover from what Craigslist did to it, although one has to wonder if newspaper executives could have prevented what happened by building a better mousetrap on their own websites. Once it saw  what Newmark was up to, why didn’t the San Francisco Chronicle build its own version of Craigslist? Why didn’t every newspaper move rapidly to build its own version of Craigslist on its site — one with the trusted imprimatur of the local newspaper, rather than that of a website that increasingly became known for adult services?

The answers to those questions will never be known. But one thing is for certain here in Florida. A sin of omission like what occurred with Craigslist would not be repeated with other newspaper revenue streams. Case in point is the legal/public notices system.

Under state law, legal and public notices must run in a newspaper that is published at least once a week and is considered the publication of record in the county. Local governments need to run public notices to give the community a heads up to all public meetings, including adopting the budget. They’re also used to give notice of judicial sales and zoning changes.

Newspapers in Florida hold a monopoly on the publishing of legal notices, despite their shrinking circulation and the reading public’s transition to online news outlets, like those published by the newspapers themselves.

In 2012, state lawmakers killed a Republican-backed push to move legal notices of foreclosures to the Internet and away from the newspaper industry, which has benefited from the notice requirement for decades.

Rep. Shawn Harrison was one of the lawmakers who voted against legislation to move legal notices online, saying at the time he wanted to preserve “the last bastion of protection” for some elderly Hispanics in Hillsborough County who rely on smaller papers to get this kind of information.

“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” Harrison told the Tampa Bay Times’ Katie Sanders.

Guess what? We’re there now. Legal notices should no longer be required to be published in print, especially since many of the outlets printing legal notices exists (and profit handsomely from) solely from publishing legal notices.

The GOP-led Florida Legislature recognizes this. Not exactly the biggest fans of the newspaper industry, many state lawmakers are eager to deregulate the legal notices system.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have not arrived at the right strategy for modernizing the legal/public notices system.

This year, a bill sponsored by Rep, Richard Stark (HB 897) and Sen. Linda Stewart (SB 1444) would have allowed cities and counties to end newspaper print and newspaper website notice of various actions (e.g., budget amendments, construction contracts, etc.) and in place of the newspaper notice post the notices on city or county websites.

Although that bill was referenced to two committees, it was appropriately TP’d (temporarily postponed) and is unlikely to return to the agenda this Session.

Although the legal notices system needs to be reformed, moving public notices from published newspapers to government websites is not the right solution.

What should happen is that the monopoly on publishing legal notices held by newspapers should be broken and the ability to publish these notices should be granted to any recognized news outlet, whether it be in print or online-only. So long as a news organization is part of a recognized industry group, such as the Florida Press Association, and it provides a certain level of actual editorial content to a certain level of readers, that organization should be permitted to publish legal notices.

Break the newspapers’ monopoly and the cost of legal notices to local governments and the private sector would go down overnight. Republican lawmakers should embrace that kind of deregulation.

Material from the Tampa Bay Times and Wikipedia was used in this post.

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.