Time for Minnesota governments to stop paid public-notice ads in newspapers?

You’re reading this story online. So shouldn’t Minnesota’s local governments be able to put their public notices on their websites and ditch the state mandate to pay newspapers for printing them, too?

It’s a perennial battle, but with a $6.2 billion deficit and hundreds of millions in local-government aid cuts on the way, the new GOP majority might just want to give municipalities relief out of journalism’s hide. House File 162 would allow political subdivisions (cities, counties, school boards, etc.) to replace print ads for “proceedings, official notices, and summaries” with a single annual notice: that such notices are on the Web.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa)
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa)

On top of a lousy economy that’s punished ad revenues generally, it could mean dozens of Minnesota journalists lose their jobs. But it might mean dozens of government workers – cops, clerks, etc. — keep theirs.

Ad-spending relief is “something we hear about over and over from members,” says Jennifer O’Rourke, an intergovernmental relations representative for the League of Minnesota Cities.

How much do municipalities spend? One 140,000-person county, Olmsted, pays $100,000 a year, according to Keith Carlson, executive director of the Minnesota Inter-County Association. Multiply that times 87 counties, hundreds of cities, countless boards, and public-notice spending is likely in the millions.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association (MNA) doesn’t have a figure on public-notice revenue statewide, but general counsel Mark Anfinson says members report getting from zero to almost 10 percent of revenue from public notices, with the bulk clustered between 1 and 5 percent.

Anfinson, who has coordinated legislative strategy on the issue for years, isn’t claiming any paper would go out of business should public notice ads evaporate.

A case study
Peter Grimsrud, who publishes the Zumbrota-based News-Record — the legal paper for multiple cities, counties and boards — says public-notice ads produce no more than $5,000 annually. That amounts to less than 1 percent of his sales.

Losing government bucks would be “a blip,” he says, but given plunging real estate, auto and other advertising, “I’ve had a lot of blips in the last couple of years.”

Like many small-paper publishers, Grimsrud also publishes a shopper. He says the paper costs him four times as much, but the shopper produces 12 times the revenue. With each few thousand dollars that disappear, the temptation to dump news increases.

Grimsrud says, “Most of my ads go in the shopper. One exception is the banks — they’re community-oriented — and the other are the legals. The sense of community spirit goes down with all the revenue streams I lose.”

His paper regularly runs a column by House Republican Steve Drazkowski — who happens to be the sponsor of HF 162. Anfinson archly notes that the Representative could simply publish the column to his own website — but chooses the newspaper because it gets more traffic.

For his part, Grimsrud quips, “Steve’s next letter to the editor might have to be paid for.”

Drazkowski — whose bill has bipartisan support but is currently being shopped for a Senate sponsor — is sympathetic.

“The reality is, government has had this mandate for a long time, and a lot of these newspapers built their business models around it,” he says. “But this is the reality is we have with each of these mandates and each of these subsidies. For instance, the ethanol subsidy ends in 2012. State government is asking for $6.2 billion more than it can afford. Something has to yield.”

A subsidy, or a service?
Newspaperfolk, naturally, chafe at the subsidy label. The ads, they say, are a fee for service: getting public information as widely and conveniently disseminated as possible. “Some information, especially in the public notice realm, does not get seen if strictly on the web,” Anfinson contends.

Grimsrud offers the example of a big wind-power fight in Goodhue County, where “there’s already the implication that government is not keeping people informed.” If Drazkowski’s bill passes and government only has to post notice at its buildings and on its website, that might deepen suspicions.

Nevertheless, the MNA has agreed to give up many public-notice requirements over the years, Anfinson notes.

For example, Drazkowki’s bill expands on existing state law that allows transportation projects to appear only on government websites. Such projects involve small pools of bidders who are often not in the locality’s geographic area, Anfinson explains.

For the ads that currently run, state law also mandates that papers charge their lowest classified ad rate. As a nod to digital convenience, any paper that charges for subscriptions must put public notices on its website for free.

When it comes to digital, Anfinson says citizens are far more likely to go to a newspaper site than the government’s. “A year ago, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch had more hits to the legal notice part of its website than the total visitors to the entire Crow Wing County website. It was 15, 20, to 1.”

He adds that the importance of public notice revenues provides extra incentives for newspapers to make sure such notices get published; without that check, governments would be accountable only to themselves.

O’Rourke says that’s overblown. “A lot of our folks, city officials, believe in letting the public know, and having access to public meetings and info. From a sunshine perspective, a lot of folks run for mayors and councils and such is that they believe in it.”

Government, after all, is the original source of the information. Then again, dozens of Data Practices battles over the years indicates the sunshine perspective is sometimes in dispute.

How public in pricey newspapers?
On the flip side, there are legitimate complaints about how public public notices really are in non-free newspapers. For example, the Minneapolis legal newspaper Finance & Commerce charges $229 a year. Yes, it publishes those ads for free on its website, but so could a county.

“Many of our notices are published by publications without wide circulation,” Carlson says. “Replace this expensive process.”

F&C’s owner, The Dolan Company, did not respond to requests for comment, but has previously stated that government-mandated ads provide the “highest-margin” revenue. The company also creates and sells more easily searchable databases from the public information, though it could still do that harvesting the free info from various government sites.

That might be less convenient for business, but cutting newspapers out of the loop isn’t quite as convenient for government as it might seem.

Many folks don’t get a newspaper these days, but not everyone has digital access, either. That’s why Drazkowki’s bill mandates governments put copies of notices in public buildings and libraries, plus create a snail-mail list so people aren’t obligated to leave their homes.

All that, plus beefed-up web requirements, means some governmental savings will inevitably be given back.

Carlson notes that “there are smaller [government] entities that have yet to operate their own website.”

What are the costs to create new ones and beef up old ones? How much added time will it take for a clerk to maintain the digital files, not to mention the snail mail list. Then, there are postage costs.

Still, Carlson considers it “highly unlikely” that mail would wind up more expensive than newspaper ads.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s office it has not reviewed the bill and does not yet have a position on it.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 01/27/2011 - 09:50 am.

    I agree with removing this mandate. I think we are past the tipping point where it makes sense to leave printed newspapers behind. If a government believes a newspaper ad is appropriate they should still be able to place it. I’m sure some newspaper public notices are more effective than others.

    I don’t agree with replacing this mandate with a snail mail mandate. People can go to public bulletin boards (library, post office, city hall) if they want the information. Posting information online at a government website and in print at local government offices is the most cost effective compromise.

  2. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/27/2011 - 10:02 am.

    Take any of the arguments the newspaper industry puts out there and apply them to the Minnesota Legislature, the state government and the federal government. All publish notices directly to the public without an expensive “private” newspaper intermediary. This is a print subsidy, pure and simple, and a most unnecessary one. While legislators are at it, they might as well abolish the print notice requirements for courts. Then look at private mortgage foreclosure print publishing requirements. Who is really paying for those? Also, how many people subscribe to the publications that have the public notice printing monopoly? Getting rid of all public notice in print requirements is a no-brainer, public policywise.

  3. Submitted by William Souder on 01/27/2011 - 10:44 am.

    So, if I’m following…this legislative session will consider ending a modest subsidy to the struggling newspaper industry, which is present in virtually every Minnesota community, while also contemplating a huge new subsidy for the billionaire owner of a sports team that operates in just one city.

  4. Submitted by Rod Garbe on 01/27/2011 - 11:18 am.

    This proposal seems simple on the surface. One has to consider the accessibility, the archiving and independence.

    Accessibility – Everyone can have access to a newspaper that wants one; the same is not true for a home computer and the internet. We all feel the entire world is connected but (especially in rural areas) it is not always the case. In some rural areas of MN the majority of households still do not have internet access. Many rural cities still do not have websites.

    Archiving – If this information is posted on-line, how will this be accessible to the general public in the future when technology changes? It is a fallacy that it will be cheaper for government to maintain accessible archives, server, storage, IT support etc. for years to come. This will be a much higher cost to the taxpayers than the current system. Currently newspapers going back for decades are readily available for anyone. Try to access a current website 50 years from now. Some of us feel it is important to have this available to everyone well into the future.

    Independence – Is it truly informing the public when there is no independent oversight? I am sure this can be debated but the obvious answer is no.

    The proposal sounds good politically until one understands the other issues involved.

  5. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/27/2011 - 11:29 am.

    @ William Souder. As Brauer notes, the choices in these budget deficit times include another cop on a local street or, in your words, a “modest subsidy to the local newspaper industry.” The problems in the newspaper industry are far beyond any “modest subsidy” provided by public notice in print. Not that I support a publicly subsidized Vikings stadium, but it’s your kind of thinking, subsidizing things like newspapers with public nickels and dimes, that prevents government from moving forward with the times.

  6. Submitted by Renee McGivern on 01/27/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    Regarding posting public notices online, have you seen city and county Web sites? Most are very poor. There are few trained government people who know how to organize Web site information and update it. For many smaller communities, the local newspaper is THE community site because professionals work there who regularly design, organize and update their Web sites.

    As to public notices in the print editions – readership for weekly newspapers is still very, very high, particularly in outstate Minnesota.

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 01/27/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    As a former newspaper reporter who has wondered about this for ages, its long overdue. Not that much of the new media has proven itself for anyting more than Jackass videos and OMG!-like gossip, but printed newspapers are dying. In my city, for instance, the paper is a poorly written and edited weekly with virtually no news except for local school board coverage and high school sports that is distributed free. (My neighbors keep taking down the “tube” in an effort to stop delivery.) Meanwhile, local school board and city council proceedings are broadcast on public access for all to see. It’s not as if the legals contain anything but what the local government wanted in there in the first place.

  8. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/27/2011 - 12:32 pm.

    @ Rod Garbe. Nice job reciting the newspaper industry’s red herring arguments. Let’s take them one by one.

    Accessibility. Remember when Big PhRMA objected to people buying drugs in Canada and argued that they were unsafe? I think it was Pawlenty who said, “Show me the dead Canadians.” In the same vein, the NP industry should show us those real citizens without Internet access who will be harmed by no in-print notices about government. How do those same citizens survive without printed notice of state and federal government notices? How do these poor souls supposedly survive without Internet access given the world’s financial industry runs online — as does their local bank? Show me the Minnesotan whose civic life collapses because there’s no local public notices in print.

    Archiving. Nobody’s asking local governments to create new systems. Might as well ask the rest of the world that runs online how it plans to access stuff online in 50 years. The world changes and everyone accommodates the change. Remember public libraries? And, what about those archives that require 100s of dollars to subscribe to, to get the access to the archives. “Archiving” is shorthand for protecting the newspaper industry’s current gravy train.

    Independence. The funniest argument. The public notices in print are printed verbatim from what the government provides. In fact, I bet those notices are EMAILED ONLINE (and copied, cut and pasted) for print publication. No “obvious answer” here. Quite the contrary.

    Again, the Minnesota Legislature, the state government and the federal government put notices of immense importance online, and only online.

    The issues here are simple. The answer to any objection to getting rid of public notices in print?

    Follow the money. Because public notice in print has nothing to do with running an informed democracy. It’s only about the money.

  9. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 01/27/2011 - 12:57 pm.

    I’m with Rod and William. Maybe in a few years “everyone” will have ready access to the Internet, but we’re not there yet — not even here in the metropolis because of cost.

    I confess to receiving a modest newspaper pension, but I don’t think of the legal notices as subsidies — although they may help small weeklies stay afloat. The notices are a public service, just like roads and police, and they encourage government transparency and public access.

    The small savings to governments would be far outweighed by loss of information and convenience to their publics.

    The idea of state officials saving such small amounts that encourage public knowledge when they’re contemplating putting scores (or hundreds)of millions we don’t have into a subsidy for the Wilf family entertainment business is beneath contempt.

  10. Submitted by William Souder on 01/27/2011 - 12:57 pm.

    Ms. Anderson: Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly…I don’t think we disagree. I was only pointing to the juxtaposition of these two issues in the legislative agenda as an instance of weirdly out-of-touch priorities. I say put the public notices online and Zigi Wilf on notice that if he wants a stadium he can build one himself.

  11. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 01/27/2011 - 01:06 pm.

    Rod Garbe brings up some good issues but I think they can all be resolved.

    Accessibility – how much longer will all areas be served by print newspapers? Also, removing a mandate does not mean a municipality with substandard internet service wouldn’t choose to put public notices in the newspaper anyway. It also doesn’t prevent a newspaper from passing valuable public information along to their subscribers.

    Accessibility could be improved in several ways with a digital format. There are software devices to assist those who cannot see or hear and software translators for those who cannot read English. It is much easier to search government listings throughout the state online than it is to subscribe to all the newspapers of record.

    Archiving – what makes the local newspaper easier to archive than a printout of a PDF on a web page? A requirement that the information posted on the government website is in a printable format takes care of this issue. As newspapers no longer have print versions and libraries see funding cuts what will happen to their archives?

    Independence – What oversight does the newspaper provide printing advertisements? These are the equivalent of press releases. Nobody is preventing news organizations from doing their own reporting on these events.

    I think you need to break this down to the simplest question. Should government be forced to pay certain newspapers to print their press releases?

    I am opposed to the mailing list idea simply because it requires paying a government bureaucrat to maintain the list. If people are interested they can go down to the town hall and get a copy. Better yet, the town hall or library could have a public terminal available so people can access public web pages.

    This is a great example of “reinventing government” to improve services while reducing costs.

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/27/2011 - 01:06 pm.

    Under the present law, municipalities are required to appoint an “official newspaper” wherein they publish official notices and announcements. The same law requires newspapers to allow municipalities the lowest possible advertising rate, which I suppose would be for volume advertisers. No matter. Last Fall, when there was a ballot proposal in my city to adopt a charter, where the law required the entire charter to be published verbatim, the cost was about $4,000.00. That did not go to all people because not everyone is town subscribes any more. That’s $4,000 more than it would have cost to publish on the city’s website.

    The same logic might extend to other official notices, like for sheriff’s sales on foreclosures and executions. Now these things are published in the Forest Lake School news or the like. Change the law to allow publication on the County’s official website and let everyone bid on tax and mortgage foreclosed properties.

  13. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/27/2011 - 01:58 pm.

    @ William Souder. Didn’t mean to be adversarial. We’re on the same page.

    @Jon Erik Kingstad. Right on. The statutes have been honed over time to protect incumbent bidders. Follow the money.

    As for community newspapers. This conversation is about them in a small way.

    There are others who benefit big-time.

    Follow the money. Particularly the big money.

  14. Submitted by Steve Dahl on 01/27/2011 - 06:38 pm.

    This is the most thoughtful set of comments I’ve seen about this issue. I’ve been following it on this site http://legal-notice.org which has an awesome collection of articles about local governments worldwide grappling with the public notice question. Here’s another site http://free-public-notice.com that shows by example what should be done. Most importantly these guys are not the government they are a third party. FREE-They provide e-mailed alerts for free. So you don’t have to keep going back to the site or the newspaper. -IMMEDIATE-The local government doesn’t have to wait for the notice to be published in the newspaper for it to be published on line. They can upload it straight to the site. -FULL DISCLOSURE-The newspaper charges more depending on how large the ad is. Thus the incentive is to publish as little as possible in the newspaper. These guys link to the original documents (zoning maps, bid specifications, -DOCUMENTATION- they provide Affidavits of publishing. -GREEN- No cutting down trees to publish these notices. -PERMANENCE- The notices stay on line forever. The newspaper’s notice goes away. Newspapers do a lot of things really well. But so do a lot of businesses. It doesn’t mean as taxpayers we should overspend for a service that is inferior.

  15. Submitted by John Dermody on 01/27/2011 - 11:13 pm.

    Madeline…keep on paddelin’…and you eventually will beat the subject to death, even though you only have a limited viewpoint. It appears that almost all the commenters are metro dwellers and no little or nothing about how rural folks function. Small town newspapers are valuable and — while I have had colleagues on the city council (during my recent term) tell me that meetings don’t need to be covered and notices should not have to be posted — there are many people who want to read the information.

    My town of Frazee, population 1311, has a better paper than most larger cities. The amount it takes in regarding “subsidy” payments would not likely pay for new tires on the city’s three squad cars (one rarely used) and two pickup trucks for the street department. Hire (or keep) a police officer. Get real! We have two full-timers and some other licensed cops fill in part-time shifts. The mention of “subsidy” is a joke. I have a subsidy; it is called Social Security. Why don’t you, Ms. Anderson, advocate cutting my SS subsidy in half, along with that of others who are allegedly retired…but most likely scrathing for small change as a part-time worker to earn a real subsidy. Additionally, do you have any idea how many small news items are worked into the layout each week as a favor to residents, many of them blatant requests for funds for the public? At every turn, small town media subsidizes individuals and organizations, whether they are subscribers or not.

    One man said his local (very inadequate) paper is a free distribution publication. Obviously, it is a shopper and wouldn’t qualify as an “official publication.” We have small towns below 1,000 with no publications and no web sites. What do citizens do to get notifications if they are not carried in the closest cities’ publications? You don’t have a clue. The MNA Anfinson is correct: There have been changes and there will be more. If you have your way, you save peanuts…then wonder why the piggy bank doesn’t have much after all your efforts to deep six newspapers.

    Then you would be the first to come around to the Mom and Pop newspaper and ask to have a special article written to promote your vested interests.

  16. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/28/2011 - 01:41 pm.

    @ John Dermody. I won’t address your snarkiness, except to note that I agree that small town newspapers do matter. But I do have a simple way to solve your problem:

    The bill to get rid of public notice in print can easily be amended to exclude cities and/or counties where Internet access is truly an issue or where greater MN people like you are willing to subsidize it to benefit your local papers.

    However, the lobbying to prevent an amendment like that will be fierce because the entity(ies) driving the public notice gravy train desperately need you rural guys as cover.

    Follow the money as this bill gets worked over at the Capitol. Follow the money all the way to its source (which may seem obfuscated at first but it ultimately is quite trackable).

    Finally, to all the rural people like John. Don’t be chumps. You are being used as cover for the gravy train. As noted above, there’s an easy compromise that protects rural interests.

  17. Submitted by Michael Skillrud on 01/28/2011 - 02:46 pm.

    What about making it optional for the local newspapers? If the Frazee Forum deems the information to be of strong interest to their readers, then they can reprint it (at no charge and as a public service). If people in the Frazee area truly value such information they most certainly will buy the paper to get the information.

    Local newspapers: Here’s a free idea: to cover any “lost revenue” find a local sponsor (law firm, dentist office, church, radio station, etc.) to sponsor the section. Have some fun with it: “This Week’s Gas – brought to you by Frazee BP” or “The Weekly Otter Tail Power Hot Air.” If this information is so desirable, newspapers should have a waiting line of businesses wanting to sponsor the space.

  18. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/28/2011 - 03:29 pm.

    About time to make this change. This shows how out of touch government is with reality. What percentage of adults even look at a newspaper regularly? Probably somewhere between 25% and 50%. Most of us go to the web for our news.

    Anyone can go to the web. If not from home or work, they have Internet at public libraries all over.

    The state could create a central clearinghouse for these documents and announcements. Just think of the additional capabilities technology affords. E-mail notifications based on geography. Status updates. Actual planning documents. Related projects. Context.

    Paper is SO 20th century.

  19. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 01/29/2011 - 03:17 am.

    In case anyone missed this: “Social Security and Welfare Benefits Going Paperless.”


  20. Submitted by Rhonda Silence on 01/30/2011 - 08:58 pm.

    For full disclosure, I will first say that I am the editor of a small-town newspaper, the Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais, MN. This is a very well-written, thoughtful, article on an important issue – thanks!
    I am an advocate of newspapers publishing legal notices. Yes, I receive a very small benefit from legal notices. Because of advertising — all advertising, commercial or governmental — I am able to fill our newspaper with news every week. To be a legal newspaper in the state of MN, newspapers must have at least 60/40 news versus advertising. So it makes sense that some of the funding to allow us to offer the news comes from the newsmakers themselves.

    However, the major reason I think legals should be published is because there needs to be ONE repository for community news. Yes, the city, county, Mn/DOT, Mn/DNR, townships, and assorted law firms could all publish their notices on their websites. And yes most people now have access to the internet. However, how many people are going to visit all those websites each week?
    The Cook County News-Herald is the one place for community members and those with ties to the North Shore to look for planning & zoning, election notices and more for the city of Grand Marais, Cook County, the townships of Lutsen, Tofte & Schroeder It is where they find out what timber sales the DNR & Forest Service are planning.

    The county that was charged $4,000 to run an entire document, is definitely not the norm. Cities & counties are already saving by publishing a weblink for readers to visit or by inviting them to stop by and pick up a copy.

    I take serious issue with the person who said a notice “stays on-line forever” — are you kidding? Government websites are just getting started — please tell me if you can find one that has an archive policy. When legal notices are published in the newspaper, an affidavit of publication is provided for the county files. The paper also archives, on-line and in a binded record of the entire paper. A copy of every newspaper published in the state of MN is sent to the MN Historical Society, which puts it on microfiche. Will counties have a similar procedure for archiving?

    Finally, to the person who suggested we put legals on-line free, I would ask how we can then afford to publish the indepth news coverage we do of county, city, economic development authority, public utility commission, hospital board, school board, city, county, township, etc? In our community, there are 50-plus non-profit entities — a radio station, health care foundation, girl & boy scouts, community education, art colony, etc. We provide thousands and thousands of dollars of free editorial space every year.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to require that government entities print legal notices in an officially designated newspaper. I think it is a service to taxpayers that should continue.

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