Printing Legal Notices Remains Important

In an online world, dead-tree products still help keep citizens informed

As newspaper circulations decline and computer use increases, some politicians have proposed legislation to allow legal notices to be posted on the Internet rather than in agate type purchased in dead-tree products.

As someone who loves dead-tree products, I don't think it's a good idea. But one suspects there is more to the argument. Newspaper editorial pages, with some regularity, criticize conservative legislators and oppose their agenda. It is no surprise that conservatives are usually the proponents of taking legal-notice revenue away from newspapers.

Legal-notice revenue is not a big item on the state's large daily newspapers' balance sheet. It is more problematic for small county-seat weeklies. But in a time of declining classified revenue, especially from car dealers, every little bit hurts.

You can't run legal notices unless you have a second-class postal permit. If you don't already have a second-class postal permit you can't get one. As a practical matter, papers with permits who print legal notices have a government franchise. Given the technology and the ease of getting into the publishing business these days, the weekly papers in most counties in Tennessee are able to hold off competition because their legal notices give them the stamp of an official publication and their circulation and tradition help them hang on to their advertisers.

In order to get the postal permit, over 50 percent of your circulation has to be paid. You can't start a paper without advertising revenue. You can't get the advertising revenue unless you have enough circulation. The Metro Pulse model is to rely on advertising revenue and depend on its popularity to get people to pick it up, read it, and support advertisers. If you start a paper and insist on paid circulation, it would take you years to achieve the paid circulation that would attract advertisers. It's a Catch-22. You can't spend enough money and stay in business long enough to build a paid circulation base without advertising revenue. The free circulation that gets you advertising prevents you getting a second-class postal permit.

When the Knoxville Journal went out of business, dropping from daily to weekly, then fading from there, an enterprising fellow named Phil Hamby went and purchased it. What he saw, and others didn't, is that the Journal still had a second-class permit. Probate notices, divorce notices, and other legal notices have provided the weekly Journal with a built-in advertising base.

It can be argued that if everybody understands that legal notices will now be online instead of in the paper, does it really matter? I think it does. We may reach a point where online is the way to go, but we aren't there yet.

It is true that the people who read legal notices are usually people who have a vested interest in them—people whose business involves bankruptcies, divorces, probate, meeting notices. I doubt most newspaper readers scan the legal notices every day. But the purchase of a computer and paying for online access remains a barrier for many average citizens.

At present the weekly papers in rural counties are the only business model that works to give rural and small-town citizens coverage of local news. Bloggers and large metro dailies are not going to cover the school boards and the county commissions in outlying areas on a consistent basis. Anything that weakens these papers is not good.

The printed newspaper is still an important vehicle to get everything. Yes, I do read the News Sentinel online, but my preference is the printed version where I can look at every page and read all the news. Not to mention my daily fix of Arlo and Janis.

We don't really know what the future holds for printed newspaper products, but for now they are important and worth preserving. Anything that threatens them needs to be resisted. No matter how much you hate their editorial page.