Gov. Deval Patrick is repeating a threat he’s made in the past: to take legal notices out of newspapers and run them online instead, thus saving taxpayers some money.
Hillary Chabot reports in today’s Boston Herald that Patrick has included a provision in his transportation bill that “would allow public transportation projects to advertise on the Internet instead of newspapers.”
From the earliest days of American newspapers, legal notices have been an important source of revenue. During Colonial times, it wasn’t uncommon for newspapers to curry favor with the royal governor in order to get lucrative official advertising.
Has the moment come to rethink legal ads? Probably. But given the horrendous state of the newspaper business, the timing couldn’t be any worse.
What Patrick proposes isn’t unique to Massachusetts. Le Templar of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., recently spoke with NPR’s “On the Media” about this very subject. Among other things, he said:
[A] variety of research shows that despite the current plight of the newspaper industry, people are still reading newspapers and their companion websites far more than they’re reading individual government websites. We’re talking at magnitudes of 10 to 100 times more.
Also, newspapers serve as sort of a central repository. If you’re a person who likes to know what different governments are up to around you, you can go to your local newspaper and read them all at once instead to having to go sit in a library all day and look through different minutes or, in the modern electronic era, hit individual websites.
Templar also argued that it’s far easier for the government to prove that it published a legal notice, as required by law, with a newspaper clip than with an online notice on a government site. (Thanks to O-Fish-L for calling my attention to the Herald story.)
41 thoughts on “Gov. Patrick targets legal notices”
If efficiency and cost-savings are the real goal, the state should set up a website to serve as a clearinghouse for all state and local government legal notices, not just ones pertaining to state transportation projects. The site should be searchable by city/town and the state should allow municpalities to post on the site for free, eliminating the costly print advertising. Considering the number of meeting notices, by-law changes, RFP’s etc., there could be some considerable savings.Dan, the conflict of interest you cite from colonial times is still present in the (almost) modern age. In his 1979 tome, “A City Under the Influence : a political autobiography,” one-term reformist Quincy Mayor Joe LaRaia lamented that the city’s placement of legal notices both in the daily (Patriot Ledger) and weekly (Quincy Sun) was so lucrative for the papers that it insulated certain public officials from harsh coverage, even when deserved.
Newspapers across the country have traditionally thrived on legally notices. Many community newspapers in the US were considered more valuable with signifcant paid circulation and located in the county seat with legal notices.Along with that distinction comes the responsibility to not exploit such opportunity. Traditionally newspapers charged more per column inch for legal notices but some of that was attributed to the large amounts of text that was suppose to be printed without error.There are some newspapers, in particular some owned by GateHouse, that are terribly exploiting the opportunity, so much so that Gov. Patrick may be on the right track that some legislation is forthcoming. Running mortgage foreclosures in 12 and 14 point type is absurd. Our banking and financial industry is struggling enough without GateHouse newspapers violating a fidicuary trust.Similarly, I recently read a legal in large type advertised by a Trust for which the beneficiary is the city’s public library. This is not only a violation to the deceased, but to the citizens of the community cheated by their city newspaper.Newspapers are not going to thrive on the long haul by legally embezzeling money from the community it should be serving. It is an intolerable arrogance.
O-FISH-L absolutely – – – such a great concept – – – because the integrity of newsaper publishers has reached a new low – – – “. .the state should set up a website to serve as a clearinghouse for all state and local government legal notices, not just ones pertaining to state transportation projects. The site should be searchable by city/town and the state should allow municpalities to post on the site for free . . .”
Fish: It’s really not a bad idea at all. My problem is that we’ve managed to live with the present system, flaws and all, since the founding of the Boston News-Letter in 1704. Can’t we go a couple more years, until the recession is over?
I think I found myself agreeing with Fish, which is … odd.Who knows — maybe a newspaper company could get a contract to run the Web site.Like Fish, I’d like to see it searchable by town. I’d also like to see it searchable by category (e.g., electrical, road work), by state region. And I’d like RSS feeds for each of those, as well as an e-mail subscription. If they’re going to go online, they really ought to go online RIGHT.Dan, the state has its own financial problems. Would you rather see more retardation or drug addiction counselors laid off from jobs that long term save the state money, just to keep feeding newspapers the legal ads? There are no good answers.
Cheating the public with legal notices so the newspaper business can pay creditors because the dealmakers made big mistakes with “private equity” a few years ago is a violation to decency.
Sheeple and NewsHound: Here’s the problem. I don’t really disagree with what you’re saying. But after 305 years, and with the newspaper business coming apart, it is suddenly an outrage to the conscience if newspapers get revenue from legal notices for even a minute longer? It just makes no sense.And Sheeple, common sense would dictate that refusal to reform the state’s pension system will result in a lot more drug counselors being laid off than continuation of legal notices.
Newshound: I don’t understand what you mean about GateHouse violating its fiduciary duty regarding these legal notices. Especially I don’t understand what you are saying about the library trust. Can you explain further?
It seems as if we are talking about two issues here. The first is whether or not it is appropriate to put legal notices online only, ceasing the age old practice of putting them in the local newspapers. The second issue is the income that these notices provide to the paper, an important point to them at this time. As to whether the notices should be moved online, most people do not read them, and for that matter are even unaware they are there. Anyone with an interest in them could easily get them online, and would likely be active online anyway. As far as the income the notices provide to the paper, exactly what kind of money are we talking about? Is it serious money, or are we just worried about any nickle of lost income today?
Ron Newman – – – Following a recent death the descendant’s will had been placed with a bank’s trust department to process with the only beneficiary being the city’s public library. A legal notice is required to provide opportunity should anyone reading the newspaper on that day happen to notice the ad and have reason to file objection. The GateHouse newspaper ran the advertisement in about 12 point type as it does with its legals instead of the traditional agate or 6 or 7 point type. The advertisement is multiple times larger than it should be and as a result the estate costs are dramatically increased thus reducing the benefit to the beneficiary – – – in this case the city’s financially struggling public library.The same applies with mortgage foreclosures. In better times the auction may bring enough to cover the debt and costs. In this environment as we are reading, many of the foreclosures are bringing in less than the debt thus a major contribution to the reason why the nation’s largest banks are requiring large amounts of taxpayer money in an attempt to stablize the country’s financial tourmoil. Overcharging by manipulation for the legal notices contributes to deepening the finncial circumstances this country, it’s citizens and taxpayers are suffering. Even if not the owner of bank stocks individually, many of our current retirees and those saving for retirment have funds invested in the country’s corporations, including major banks, whether it be in city or state pension funds or mutual funds. We all suffer by additional exploitation and that includes library, hospital and university trust funds as well.
Do you know that the newspaper in fact overcharged the advertisers? Another possibility is that the paper had extra space to fill and decided to do so by increasing the type size of those legal notices.
acf – when you passaway GateHouse will be at the Gate to collect money for the obituary and again as part of the required legal notice to probate the estate. If you’re famous it will not be necessary to pay for your obituary and if your not famous your survivors need not pay for an obituary. GateHouse will still overcharge for the required legal notice to probate the estate and they get away with this as it becomes burried in all of the legal costs which in this case is a once-in-a-lifetime event.If a senator dies there will be an obituary in virtually all the newspapers free of charge.Maybe there should be an obituary web site too.
Ron Newman – if that is the case GateHouse deserves to be disappointing Wesley Edens as this is such a waste of newsprint at over $700 a ton. A nice way to go broke and ensure leaving a path of destruction. Why didn’t newspapers do this 50 and 100 years ago, I wonder, if such a brilliant life saving idea.All newspapers should have a number of stories, features and pictures ready to publish should space permit. Beyond that, traditionally, newspapers are able to find additonal AP news and photos.Fortress is trading at about 10% from two years ago and GateHouse has disappointed investors, some of whom are employees and officers of the company, with a stock that has declined from $24 to eight cents. What a way to go. I wonder when the truck will not be able to make a newsprint delivery because too much has been wasted and credit is shut off.
I can understand Dan’s sentiment on the potential loss of revenues to the print media. In the middle of a decreasing stream of revenue, a loss of another tributary can be painful.But that does not mean that Government has to throw prudence to the wind and fund something that has becomes something of an anachronism.In the 18th century, the broadsheet and journal was THE way their world communicated.That has eroded over time, and today, the newspaper is no longer such important, even essential, element.At some point, the use of newspapers as a vehicle for legal notices no longer represent a way to reach the “community”, which is, after all, the purpose of a legal notice.I am not suggesting that Gov. Patrick’s proposal for an internet-based legal advertisement system is warranted at this point.But the concept is a valid one, and it is based on reasonable premises. It deserves consideration. Insisting on the government continuing a policy of expenditure that is no longer meeting the need it is trying to fulfill, is, in essence, asking for a government subsidy without clear pubic benefit.
Ron: Good point. If I were the agency that placed the ad, I’d refuse to pay the extra.
WOW, this is a really interesting and knotty problem for us newsmedia junkies, pushing a lot of buttons, both visceral and intellectual, especially in these days when the term “moral hazard” leaps so frequently and nimbly from so many keyboards. If, as Dan says, it’s a good idea except at a bad time, that simply delays coming to grips with the underlying question which is whether — given such a clear choice — a government body should ever favor the fiscal well-being of the private sector over the economic concerns of the taxpaying public. The simplistic answer is, of course, no; but a more considered reply would be…maybe. Right or wrong, governments do that all the time, whether for venal reasons or otherwise. Bail out the banks? Of course not; unless their failure threatens the commonweal. Newspapers too are special — for reasons too obvious to enumerate herein — but no single one of them (well, maybe the New York Times) is so important to our society at large that it should be infused with public money when the public is drowning in a depression. Of course, newspapers could offer to run legal notices for free in order to retain those readers to whom such information is interesting or important, but I suggest that the cost of newsprint would preclude such a solution. It is, after all, lost revenue — not lost circulation — that is at stake here. I could go on at stupifying further length with pros and cons — both political and economic — but I think, finally, that this is just one more straw that will eventally help to break the backs of a large number of our nation’s newspapers and that we’d just better get used to the idea, however repugnant.
Legal notices are not only beneficial to newspapers as a source of revenue, but they also build readership. A newspaper without legal notices is not as appealing to every buyer and reader, all the more reason why newspapers should attempt to preserve penetration in the market and not violate a fidicuary by overcharging. Sooner or later though it will end. GateHouse’s exploitation can serve the Governor in his attempt to change history.Ikcape – Well said – – – “Insisting on the government continuing a policy of expenditure that is no longer meeting the need it is trying to fulfill, is, in essence, asking for a government subsidy without clear pubic benefit.”
Hi -I agree with the idea of some sort of state administered central online database which would be searchable by town, topic, etc. But I do think legal notices should continue to run in newspapers because not everyone has access to online resources. Many folks don’t have computers and don’t know how to use the ones available at a public library. I hear from my elderly relatives and friends how unhappy they are when news anchors say: “You can learn more about this on our website at http://www.whatever...” They feel cut off and pushed aside. And each of them subscribes to weekend and/or daily newspapers!- Lee
This is an interesting topic, with many points upon which to agree with others (even Fish). It probably makes financial sense for the state to remove legal notices from traditional venues, but none of us like that idea, and for many reasons. It is certainly true, as IKcape notes, that traditionally newspapers were the method in which the “community” was notified of pending legal business. The problem is that, aside from the recession, etc., the very notion of “community” has drastically changed: much more diverse, not as closely knit, not nearly as parochial, etc., as it once was. Not only is the print media deep in uncharted waters, but so is our whole society. The print media, and the rest of us too, are in transition to something else. Wish I knew what.
I think computers are a double-edged sword. I agree with Bill H., I don’t know where we’re heading.
I think none of us know where we are heading, Ani.One thing, however, of which I am sure, is that robust discussion and debate will not disappear if and when the print media does.Dan’s blog, here, is a good example of how dialog can and will continue. I would not underestimate the ability of public opinion to express itself. Nor would I underestimate the chances of new and different venues for expression of public will to arise.Bill_H’s observation regarding the dynamic nature of community is quite perceptive, perhaps, an understatement.But legal notice to the “community” must reach its audience if it is to fulfill it’s intent.The “community” newspaper is rapidly disappearing from the street corner, and thus may no longer be a useful conduit to the public.In my community, legal notices are published in a weekly that reaches a extremely low percentage of the households in its target area.I don’t see how that can meet the public need for adequate public notice of important matters.An internet-based posting might.
I wholeheartedly agree with Pink Granite – there are STILL many people in this State without internet access. I learned this first hand during the casino debate. Everyone has easy access to a newspaper, but not so with computers. Here in Cranberry Country especially.“Anyone with an interest in them could easily get them online, and would likely be active online anyway.”Untrue. I know of many people who are definitely interested in reading the legal notices but who cannot afford a computer or monthly internet service, or work during library hours (making matters worse, the hours in my town are very limited), or feel able to surmount the learning curve needed to master computers. Personally, I’ve found this phenomenon frustrating since most newspaper coverage of the casino issue in this region has left much to be desired, while an active debate exists on-line. But the fact is – as easy and convenient as I find the Internet, many others feel the opposite.I love the idea of a State web site, but until everyone, or the VAST majority in MA is online, and made aware through public service announcements to check notices on the Internet from now on – the notices should stay in print.
This sentence does not belong in a book review because it passes judgment on your other writing and not your book, which doesn’t even come close to the topics he raised in these two sentences. (By the way, whether you said it or not, you are right. It’s too bad Russ took a cheap shot and fucked with your book sales. I’ll egg him next time he’s in town.)Dan Kennedy is a liberal media critic for a weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix. In his telling, President Bush is a moron, a right-wing cabal controls the country and Rupert Murdoch is the philistine who has sullied world-wide media.
Back to the topic.Gladys’ comment relates more to news coverage than it does to public notice issue of legal notice publication.My town is served by a weekly that, by the paper’s circulation numbers and a couple of simple calculations — based on an average of 2.3 persons per household — reaches, at best, less than 25% of the households.It is in this weekly that ALL legal notices for the town are published.This is a far cry from the extensive public notice for which the publication requirements are intended.My town is also likely fairly well connected compared to others when it comes to the internet, with a vast majority having internet access, if not actually using it.The debate should necessarily revolve around the question of which venue is the best suited for meeting the intent of legal publication.Newspapers and other print media are losing ground quickly to the upstart. It is likely time to change the established customs, or at least consider change seriously.
Constructive notice is such a weird idea to begin with — kind of like, “Well, your need to know and our ability to get the information to you don’t really meet in the middle so we’ll agree as a community on what constitutes enough of an attempt.” I have no idea how often constructive notice leads to actual notice.
The comments so far focus on the impact on newspapers. What about the impact on the public? Let’s not forget why we have a process of public bidding and public notice on government projects. It is to protect against graft, corruption and cronyism. Before public bidding, government contracts were doled out in back-room deals. The publication of public notices plays an important role in protecting the public. That is why it needs to be done by an impartial publisher that can oversee and verify the publication. To have government entities in charge of publishing their own notices is to put the fox in charge of the henhouse.The other other issue here is disenfranchisement. The fact is, many people still do not have routine access to the Internet. And the people who lack routine access tend to be the people who are already at greatest risk of disenfranchisement — the poor and the elderly. Sure, this would be an economic blow to newspapers. But it would also be a blow to citizens and to the right to know. The only winner in this scenario would be the government.
One addition to my last comment. This is not the only bill this session involving public notices. Gov. Patrick has also filed a bill that would allow the state and also all cities and towns to post procurement notices on their own Web sites. This could mean hundreds of different sites set up in different ways with different levels of back-up and security — in short, a mess. Meanwhile, the newspapers already collaborate in posting their notices to a common Web site: http://ma.mypublicnotices.com.
While I understand the nostalgia for keeping these notices as paid advertisements, I would argue that the newspaper has always been nothing more than a second home for them. By law, the notices you see in the paper are required to be posted in city/town hall or a state office building somewhere. If you really want to see them, there they are. The argument that not everyone has Internet is valid, but over the years not everyone had a newspaper, either. We seem to have survived our inability to reach them. There is no perfect solution for notification, but the Internet is as good if not better than newspapers in disseminating the notices, and far less expensive. Perhaps the Internet notices could be posted on the local cable TV government access channel as well, reaching a broader audience and also costing next to nothing. Dan you’re correct on pension reform, Sen. Pres. Murray is correct on transportation reform and I’d argue Gov. Patrick is correct on this. What strikes me is that all of the reform is piecemeal and there seems to be no comprehensive effort at efficiency. That’s what we really need, a room of outside efficiency experts, sans lobbyists, and a requirement (like base closures) that the legislature have one vote up or down on their recommendations. Of course it will never happen here and the haphazard approach will continue.
Legals are also a great source of leads for stories. I’m amazed that some reporters never read them. It is my belief that taking them out of the newspapers would make them much less visible.Probate notices can be published anywhere in the county, so it would actually be possible to shop for price. Nobody does it, though. And a paper using the Gatehouse trick can quote a low rate but sock you with a large bill.Using 14 point type is very short-sighted, even suicidal. I’d bet that’s why Patrick hatched the plan.My father fought the battle on legals for nearly a half-century. It began when the selectmen didn’t like his editorials, so they decided to put the town legals in an out-of-town paper.One of the most important things a paper can do is proofread those legals very carefully. Papers should also be careful on any cancellation of a legal ad. We actually had a case where a person under foreclosure had his secretary call, falsely identifying herself as the law office, to cancel the third appearance of the legal notice, thus voiding the auction. After that, we set a rule that notices could only be cancelled in writing, on the original letterhead.The proofreading at the Town Crier was done by Flora Kasabuski. She swore like a trooper, smoked like a fiend, talked to herself and never dressed up. But she was a law school graduate who had never gone into practice. She was really good. No typos got past her, not even a missing comma.zzzzzzzzz
An important point of the proposal, which is listed in SECTION 16 of the bill (the all caps is important) is that the Internet posting is specifically allowed to be on a state agency website. There is no requirement to send the ad `out’ of the state’s house.Gripe all you want about the point size of legal ads and the cost factor. The significant fact is that their publication and distribution exists in a realm something outside the control of state authority. That’s the point of the statutory requirement, I think. And without it, the gurantee of that publication and distribution will cease to exist. At the very least, if print is to be declared an outmoded form in Gov Patrick’s transportation bill, the legal ads for public contracts should be advertised and archived in an online venue not controlled by the state. And that advertisement should happen by statute. The transportation bill makes no such requirement, nor does it seek input on such.
Which branch of government has final say on what is adequate notice by publication for public contracts, for probate actions, and for any other category of legal notices?
Ani – the legal requirement for posting public notices, often in a newspaper of paid circulation in the city or town and if none in the city or town in the county, is established by the legislature as a statute. The requirements vary. Years ago one of the state’s newspaper associations compiled a booklet of the various statutes relating to public or legal notices.What is contributing to making newspaper publication outmoded is the cost of buying newspapers which relates to declining circulation in the target market. Cost is not the only reason for declining circulation, but it contributes. Newspaper circulation may be at about 35% of households while those with computers is substantially higher.
PinkGranite: Let me add my two cents to the complaint about TV anchors telling viewers than ‘more info’ is available. I’ve been online since 1993, and the constant pitch by TV anchors to go to their website for more info drives me mad. It’s bad enough that they don’t offer those without Internet access a way to get that info, but they do it after almost every news item. Enough already. The least they could do is cut back on the pitches, perhaps once before a commercial would do. Of course, you realize that all they’re doing is running constant pitches to get you to their website where you can add to their ‘hit count’ and watch their ads. It seems like their entire broadcast is nothing more than a tease to get you to come back after the commercial, and an ad for their website. Incidentally, after an interesting consumer report on WCVB, I did go to their web site for that ‘more info’, and found nothing. Everything they had to say on the subject they said on the broadcast. I never went back again.
tp posted that the enabling legislation would allow the legal ads to be posted on a department Web site. I think this is an awful mistake.They should be centralized for the state, to ensure the views and broader interest and accessibility — both for the public’s benefit in knowing what’s at stake, and … for the public’s benefit, in seeing that enough contractors are aware of the process to ensure healthy bidding competition.I’d say again that they should also be searchable and subscribable in some way (e-mail, RSS) by category or issue, by town, and by region of the state.The state has a chance to do a real public service here -and- save a few bucks in a tough time. I don’t want to see public accessibility wrecked.
I’m still wondering whether there isn’t a due process issue at stake with respect to the publication of legal notices regarding probate court matters that might make internet posting alone inadequate.
Ani – you have a point about due process. How many people will go on the internet every day to read all the probate notices to see if someone died from whom they think they should a beneficiary and would wish to contest the will? With a newspaper you don’t have to deliberately go to a site to search – – – the legal notices are usually right there between the sports and classifieds. More importantly, creditors need to be aware to file a claim. If not and the executor/executrix does not make payment, the estate closes and the creditor loses.In a practical sense though, it may be easier to scan a list posted on the Internet than to go through numerous newspapers daily looking for notices. I think more people now have Internet access and computers than those who read a daily newspaper. This isn’t just younger people. I know people in their 90s who do get a daily and complain regularly about the paper shrinking and costing too much. I also know people in their 80s who only read the local newspaper on the Internet.
Ani, with the diminishing readership of newspapers, the due process issue is becoming as applicable to newspapers as it is to the internet. At what point does the inadequacy switch from one to the other? Are they both inadequate? Are they both adequate? I applaud Gov Patrick for at least addressing the issue. I can see the print media’s discomfort as another revenue source drifts away. The public’s obligation to due process, however, dwarfs its responsibility for continuing financial support of the Fourth Estate for a service that is no longer meeting the intended needs. The rise of the internet may spell the demise of the print media as we know it. If it does, it is because of market forces and increasingly ineffective (read unsuccessful) management of the print media’s revenue issue. Government remains obligated to its citizens, not to its newspapers.
Newspaper readership is not declining. Do not confuse drops in advertising and circulation with a drop in readership. A study of the top 50 newspaper markets found that more people today read print newspapers each day than did a decade ago. (http://tinyurl.com/d6xuqn) On top of that, a recent Nielsen study confirmed that online readership is soaring, up 12.1 percent in 2008 to 67.3 million readers a month.
It that confirmed by the audited circulation totals — which include subscription, news-stand and pass-along on which advertising rates are based or some other metric? The study does not cite its statistical bases. It also appears dated. Not by much, but dated.Note, also, that there does not appear to be an adjustment for increased population, only raw numbers.. An approximately 13% growth over a period of 10 years does not seem to be an encouraging result (1.3%/year)
Readership numbers are moot in any case if the papers can’t stay in business. Trying to keep up here, a searchable, up-to-date, state-wide database of legal notices sounds optimal. The issue of whether people will “go to the internet every day” applies likewise to newspapers. The point is that the information is readily available in a way a greater portion of the public can easily access it. (Where “greater” increases daily as the oldsters shuffle off….) Online will increase its value over time too. How many readers today can operate that damn fiddly microfiche machine at the library, to look at old newspapers?If the state is, or will be with the collapse of the local Daily Planet, the only entity with the financial resources to make this happen, is the problem that the publication of these notices will no longer occur in a realm “outside the control of state authority” (re tp’s comment)? That requirement is due to a statute, which could be changed by act of legislature?The state could function as a clearinghouse and collect the notices, enter them into a database, and publish the database in its raw state. This could be done at relatively low cost. Copies of the database could be made by external servers for comparison’s sake, to track mysterious absences and deletions. Commercial ventures could design pleasing and easy-to-use front ends that you might pay a small fee for, or that survive by advertising (you know, like online newspapers!), to search the content. Interesting previously unseen patterns commonly emerge from data thanks to well-designed query mechanisms. Better still, perhaps, the state could stay out of the data collection business and simply mandate a standard format for the electronic dissemination of the notices (ie, the database design), and let the individual towns/counties publish their notices themselves. If they were all of the same structure, querying applications could handle them in a standard manner.
Just to continue the thought of getting the state out of the control of the data problem, before the Xanax kicks in…Say the state publishes: “Standard Database Format for Dissemination of Legal Notices”. Standard SQL relational database–a few tables, maybe a few dozen fields. Towns say, we don’t have the resources to design an input application! The state could provide expertise on installing the database and provide such an input application to the towns. A nice little web app. Or, the town kicks the work up to the county.The state publishes “How to Input and Publish Legal Notices”. Towns send some smart clerk to a two-day class to learn how to do it. Updated databases are uploaded daily to some server or a hundred, probably at the local colleges, a la open source. Since anybody can download the databases, the state, along with dozens of computer types, publish query applications of varying degrees of quality for anybody to copy or improve, with the best one maybe even having a shot at commercial viability.Point is, towns thus continue to make the notices publicly available, the state isn’t controlling the data, only mandating a standard format, and the interpretation of the data is left to the public.Good idea, Fish.All right mom, sheesh, I heard you the first nine times! Good night everybody…
Comments are closed.