From Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s First Five program to helping billionaire hedge fund owners, crony capitalism is alive and well in Connecticut. But who would have thought newspapers would be lining up to keep their share of the goodies?
But that’s precisely what’s happening. Newspapers, whose editorial boards are among the first to complain about government favoritism in the private sector, want to maintain their status as a protected class. They’re all but unanimous in opposing two bills under discussion in the General Assembly that would relieve the state’s 169 municipalities of the burden of purchasing legal advertisements in newspapers announcing public hearings and the like.
On the one hand, their opposition is understandable. Most papers have seen declining profits for at least 10 years. The last thing they need is to lose yet another valuable source of revenue.
In 2009 and 2010, the idea of removing the requirement was proposed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who failed twice to get the General Assembly to pass the bills. Those measures, as well as the current bill, would only require municipalities and school districts to post notices on their own websites.
The bills have prompted defensive editorials, most recently in the Norwich Bulletin, which thundered last week that “lawmakers in Hartford do neither constituents nor town officials any favors with proposals like this. The proposed ‘cost savings’ [to towns] will be quickly erased by the cuts in municipal aid that will follow, and citizens will lose the accountability and access to government they need to be informed.” An ad taken out in 2010 by the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association compared Rell’s bill to “putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”
In an email, Matt DeRienzo, group editor of the Journal Register Company’s Connecticut papers, echoed that sentiment but added that the public interest is served by having legal notices in general-interest publications with large audiences.
“Do you check your town’s website every day?” DeRienzo asked rhetorically. “Do you want to have to, just in case someone might be planning a pig rendering factory in your neighborhood?”
Fair enough, but let’s be clear about this: newspapers have a proud and noble tradition of acting as watchdogs and guardians of the public trust. I saw that firsthand as a working newspaper journalist for 10 years. But the papers simply cannot cover this issue objectively because their economic interests are threatened. It’s as simple as that.
We all know that daily newspaper circulation has dropped like a stone over the past decade. But so has advertising, which is typically where 90 percent of the papers’ revenues come from. Classified advertising in particular has plummeted as employers and sellers flee the limitations of print for searchable Internet platforms such as Craigslist.
Legal ads were the last sector of newspaper revenue that had not seen such declines — in part because most states insist that towns, cities, and school districts publish notices there. The town of New Canaan, for example, was in effect, required to spend more than $37,000 on legal ads last year. That requirement is tantamount to a taxpayer subsidy of the print newspaper business while few comparable subsidies exist for commercial radio, television, and digital media.
Equally troubling is the fact that newsroom cutbacks have crippled coverage. Consequently, increasing numbers of boards and commissions are being told by the state that they must advertise legal notices in a newspaper that doesn’t even cover their towns.
Forget for the moment whether this change would affect the papers’ bottom lines. Newspaper publishers and lobbyists are already fighting that battle at the Capitol and behind the scenes. The question taxpayers have to ask is whether allowing municipalities and school districts to bypass the papers will result in a less informed citizenry. I’m sure some towns will continue to advertise in their community’s newspaper anyway on the premise that they’re important businesses to support. Others, however, will drop the paid ads as an easy way to save money.
If the requirement is lifted, I suspect citizens will be less informed initially. But once curious eyes grow accustomed to checking municipal websites for legal notices, it will become a habit. And here in the far Northwest Corner, the part-time residents who comprise about half our population will be able to check in on the websites of their weekend towns for notices of interest. Who knows? It might even encourage our towns to improve their websites and be more prompt about posting agendas and minutes of meetings.
Will the towns be diligent about posting legal notices in a timely fashion and keep them up there for the required amount of time? I’m sure lots of newspaper publishers, reporters, and editors will be taking screen grabs of the town legal pages every day and will promptly report any lapses to the state Freedom of Information Commission. You can take that one to the bank.