The Chafee budget item you are not reading about in newspapers

Jan 17, 2014

Buried deep in Governor Chafee’s budget is a provision that would save Rhode Islanders several million dollars annually by ending corporate welfare for the beleaguered newspaper industry.

Currently there are more than 250 requirements for legal notices and advertisements to be published in newspapers. These are the agate type legal ads for such things as foreclosures, tax liens, bankruptcy proceedings, public board meetings and the like.

While the frequencies of these requirements differ, their goal is a simple one: To notify the public about informational requirements under the law and to give the public a meaningful ``opportunity to participate in its government.’’

The Chafee Administration budget provision seeks to end the advertising requirements in dead tree newspapers and bring the notice requirements into the 21st Century by establishing a web site to give the public access to legal ads.

This one yields several million dollars a year to Rhode Island newspapers. It will be very difficult for newspaper executives to argue against it at the Statehouse with  straight faces. The world, for better or worse, works online these days and using the Internet for civic and commercial transactions is increasingly common. The U.S. Census reports that 72.2 percent of Rhode Island households have Internet access (as of 2011; probably higher now).

Indeed, newspapers now offer their content online, so it is hard for their lobbyists or executives to claim that people aren't going online for information. Rather than fighting this move, perhaps the best thing newspapers could to is partner with the state to put legal notices on line, which would drive hits to their web sites.

But newspaper circulation has dropped drastically. The newspaper legal ad requirement may have made sense a generation or two ago, but it is difficult to defend today. The daily circulation of the state’s newspapers, has declined massively over the past two decades,  according to the major newspaper auditing agency.

And why should someone have to pay $1 daily and $3 on Sunday for access to public notices? Libraries across the state make the Internet available for free to all comers.

``Given historical and current trends, offering an electronic means of publishing notices is a common-sense, efficient way to disseminate vital information to the public,’’ states the budget provision.

Posting legal notices and advertisements may ease the regulatory burdens on business, especially for ``small businesses and governmental agencies’’ states the budget language.

The proposal would give the state 120 days to establish rules for a public website that would likely replace newspaper advertising as a repository for legal advertising.

This provision, which is Article 22 of Chafee’s budget plan, is located on page 220 of the 245 page budget document. While no newspapers have written about it yet, it is sure to become fodder for reporters at some point.

They may not be covering this issue, but you can be sure the newspaper lobbyists will be teed up to fight this good consumer legislation. Local Super lobbyist Joseph Walsh has already been hired to fight this measure, say Statehouse sourcs.