Connecticut municipalities launched their continuing effort to scrap a state law requiring them to publish legal notices in newspapers from a novel position this year: the state deferred the law months ago due to the ongoing pandemic.
For years the state has required towns and cities to advertise in local newspapers to give residents notice of things like town meetings, referenda, and ordinance changes. The law is a boon to local papers and an expense on the budgets of towns, who argue they can save money by posting the notices on their websites. Newspapers, meanwhile, contend that not everyone gets their news online and town governments shouldn’t be trusted to follow the notice rules.
But while the debate is a familiar one, lawmakers will consider the issue this year, more than 10 months after Gov. Ned Lamont effectively tabled the law in an executive order designed to help local governments keep running during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Wednesday’s virtual public hearing of the Planning and Development Committee, town officials told lawmakers the executive order has been a reprieve from a costly mandate.
“All of this has been done, and I think people have been more engaged than ever before in their local government processes and I think this is the time to get this done,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
In written testimony, Gara estimated the requirement costs small towns $5,000 and $45,000 annually. Constance Vickers, Bridgeport director of legislative affairs, said the cost for her city was around $100,000 in 2019. That expense dropped to around $70,000 in 2020 while the law was rescinded by executive order, she said.
Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, told the committee that the months since Lamont issued the executive order have seen decreased accountability for towns. It has also been a costly time for newspapers as notice revenues have declined, he said.
“Public notice advertisements are down 20% and it is nearly impossible at this time to verify which notices have been published, where they have been published, and how they have been published,” he said.
The newspaper association understood when Lamont suspended the law at the height of the pandemic last spring, but it is time to reinstate it, VanDeHoef said.
“We do not believe it is needed any longer and we continue to urge him and his administration to rescind that [executive order],” he said.
Lawmakers on the committee seemed sympathetic to transparency concerns and the revenue challenges facing the state’s newspaper industry.
“We always talk about the newspapers as if we always think you’re going to be there and what we’re seeing right now through the various shrinking of the businesses and losses of local journalism, and in a world where we talk about transparency all the time, the loss of this type of revenue could have a tremendous impact,” Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said.
VanDeHoef agreed, saying it was “dangerous” to believe Connecticut newspapers would always continue to be printed. He also said further erosion of the papers’ revenue would impede their ability to pay reporters to gather news.
“The more we tick away at the bottom line, the less opportunities papers are going to have to hire those people,” he said.
Digital News Orgs Want Market Opened
The current law provides a carveout specific to newspapers, many of which are seeing significant declines in paid circulation. Municipal leaders have said that subsequent rate increases for legal notices over the years have made newspapers’ services nearly unaffordable.
Two Connecticut digital news publishers say opening the market to digital news publications would drastically reduce the cost of distributing legal notices, and the digital side of the news industry can do it in a measurable way.
But the elephant in the room, according to Ronni Zimbler Newton, managing editor at We-Ha.com, is that many print newspapers are now owned by out-of-state private equity firms with no commitment to local news coverage, essentially serving to siphon local property tax dollars out of communities without – in many cases – providing the local coverage necessary to merit the town’s legal notice business.
“If the goal of legal notices is to ensure that those who have an interest in the community are given the broadest possible exposure to them, publishing the notices on digital news websites that focus on that particular town is probably the most effective option,” Zimbler Newton said.
Connecticut currently is home to more than 22 digital-only news organizations covering dozens of towns and several that focus on Connecticut-specific topics. Two municipalities, New Haven and Norwalk, have elected to advertise their legal notices with digital only news organizations – the NewHavenIndependent.org and NancyOnNorwalk.com.
“Digital news sites have combined the best of both worlds – providing quality journalism and delivering it to readers how and where they spend their time online,” says Heather Borden Herve, founder and editor-in-chief at GOODMorningWilton.com. “Turning to their trusted local online news sites has become their habit, where they actively seek us out for what’s most important for them to know about where they live.”