The Star Ledger is up in arms today about a bit of last-minute legislating on the final day of the state legislature’s lame duck session. The bills in question, about legal notices, have attracted our attention too, but for a far different reason: They make sense.
Legal notices are those bits of miniscule type that must be used by governments for a variety of purposes, from officially recording name changes and tax liens, to notifying residents of meetings and contracts up for bid. Under current law in New Jersey, legal notices can only go in so-called “newspapers of record”. These papers must have paid subscribers and must be delivered by second-class mail. So the Star Ledger, and the Verona-Cedar Grove Times can qualify as a newspaper of record, but not the Verona Observer.
Nothing in the law specifies how many subscribers a newspaper of record must have, which is probably a good thing. In the decades since the law was enacted, newspapers have lost subscribers in droves. Readers now get their news from a variety of other sources, most of which are well known to the readers of MyVeronaNJ.com, such as Web sites, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones and more. Some of these news platforms are run by journalists, some aren’t. But that’s not at issue in the law. It doesn’t say that the news must be delivered by services that are accredited or licensed in some way. The news vehicle must only have paid subscribers and be delivered through the U.S. Postal Service.
MyVeronaNJ.com has paid subscribers, but it is hard to imagine that we would ever be delivered by mail. Our readers want information far too quickly for that, and they want it delivered wherever they happen to be when the news breaks, whether that is at home, at work, at school or on a ball field. When 80% of Verona was without power during the Halloween weekend snowstorm, our readers were able to get the news about the storm as it unfolded. They knew where to turn for emergency assistance, and what was being done to get the power back on.
As subscribers have moved away from newspapers, so have the advertisers that used to try to reach them there. According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper display ad revenue per capita has dropped from about $150 in the mid-1980s to bit over $50 in 2010. Classified ad revenue has plummeted from $230 per capita in in the mid-1980s to $84 in 2010. Legal notices are part of that classified ad revenue, and by law, they can’t move to Craigslist, Freecycle or the supermarket bulletin board. They have to stay where they are, in the back of newspapers that aren’t being read. (Newspapers in New Jersey have set up a Web site to put the legal notices online, but good luck finding it.)
The bills in front of the state legislature today would allow governments to — gasp — post legal notices on their own Web sites. Publicly available sites that could be viewed by anybody at any time. Catch your breath for a minute over that one. To the Star Ledger, it’s a “sneak attack” on newspapers that could lead to layoffs in newsrooms across the state. These bills, by the way, were first proposed in June 2010, which seems like enough time for newspapers to have made other plans. And we’ll note in passing that, even with the legal notice bill guaranteeing them a revenue stream, New Jersey newspapers have laid off hundreds of journalists in recent years. Some of those laid off have gone on to start news Web sites that, just like MyVeronaNJ.com that bring news to anybody at any time. The Star Ledger would also have you believe that it would be impossible for a Web site to post legal notices without great outlay and angst. Oh please.
The rules on legal notices in New Jersey need to change with the times. That time is now.