Your thoughts on the future of legal ads in the digital era

I got some really thoughtful responses here and on Facebook to my post arguing that Massachusetts law should be changed so that government entities can take out legal advertising in digital-only news organizations and not just in print newspapers.

There’s no question that such a change would create unintended consequences, but change is necessary at a time when fewer and fewer local news outlets have a print component. Anyway, let me take on three issues raised by readers.

Print newspapers are the only proper outlet for legals. Honestly, there just isn’t a good case for this, and for a very simple reason: print newspapers are disappearing. I suppose you could make an argument that legals ought to be restricted to print in communities where that is still an option, but that’s becoming increasingly unrealistic.

Ethan Forman, a reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times, worries that if digital is an option, local officials will choose one of the websites owned by the Gannett chain, which has been shutting down many of its weekly newspapers. “If we lose legal ads to digital, which I guess is inevitable,” Ethan says, “then these zombie Gannett websites will benefit and it will strip newspapers of this ad revenue…. If digital legal ads are allowed, I’m sure it will go to this zombie website instead of us because rates will be cheaper.”

Ethan makes a good point, and perhaps the legislative fix that state Reps. Ken Gordon and Alice Hanlon Peisch are working on could include a provision requiring that legals can only be placed in a news outlet — print or digital — that has a certain level of presence in the community. You don’t want to base it on paid circulation, because many digital outlets are free. So perhaps web traffic or newsletter subscriptions could be used as a proxy. You might also come up with some sort of objective requirement for publishing a certain amount of local news in order to be eligible for legals.

Nonprofit news outlets should not be a forum for legals. This argument comes from Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent, a for-profit print and digital news organization. Ed writes:

You point out, correctly, that one powerful argument for the publication requirement is that legal notices be published in a forum independent of the government, as an anti-corruption measure. But virtually all of the new online-only publications are organized as nonprofits, which are not independent of the government. They are dependent on being approved as legitimate by the IRS and the state.

I think Ed exaggerates a bit — there are many for-profit digital news organizations, and some of them are quite successful. But he’s right that most of them are nonprofits. Where I really disagree is with his notion that nonprofits are not sufficiently independent to carry legal ads.

Nonprofit news organizations large and small are doing excellent work in holding government to account. I don’t think the idea that they are insufficiently independent to run legal ads holds up. I honestly can’t see what problems might arise — that they might be intimidated into changing the wording of an ad after it’s been published online lest they lose their nonprofit status?

Government threats to pull legal ads pertain to for-profits and nonprofits alike. Last year, for instance, Colorado media-watcher Corey Hutchins reported that a newspaper owner in the Denver area abjectly apologized for a racist April Fools Day joke in the hopes of retaining $10,000 in legal ads. It failed, as the city council voted to take its business elsewhere.

Ed himself told a Northeastern University audience last year that the Independent has been unable to attract legal ads, which he attributed to his newspaper’s tough coverage of local officials. Good for him for not giving in — but it shows that officials do, in fact, have leverage over community news outlets regardless of whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. (Disclosure: I’m on the Independent’s informal advisory board.)

Ed also argues that digital-only legal ads exclude readers who aren’t online. True enough. But again, you can’t will a print newspaper into existence in a community that doesn’t have one.

Digital is a flawed format for creating a permanent archive. This is a real concern, not just for legal ads but for the very digital news organizations that would carry them. “This has to be addressed in the law to force news websites to take archiving seriously, but the law has to be flexible to enough to adapt to changing technology,” says Aaron Read, an engineer with The Public’s Radio in Providence, Rhode Island. “That’s not a trivial task.”

I guess the question here is for how long legal ads must be “preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived,” as the law requires. A hundred years? Five hundred? Or long enough that it’s fulfilled its purpose, which in most cases would be for a much shorter period of time.

Legals could be printed out and stored at public libraries. Or PDFs could be created and uploaded to a separate repository. That’s probably not a forever solution, but I suspect that we’ll still be able to read PDFs 50 years from now. As I noted on Saturday, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association keeps an online repository of legal ads, and if the MNPA ceased to exist (perish the thought!), presumably someone else could take it over.

Preserving websites is a real challenge, though. Print newspapers, at least, can be microfilmed and viewed in their original format indefinitely. Too much of the web, by contrast, just seems to go away.

As Ethan notes, it’s inevitable that legal ads are going to move to digital-only news sites — that is, if we can keep them on news sites and not just have them move to government platforms. Now’s the time to think these issues through in order to serve the public as effectively as possible.

An ethical breakdown in Colorado shows the influence of the ‘Romenesko effect’

By now you may have heard about a remarkable 1,000-word retraction published by the Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado, regarding a story about local residents’ memories of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I first learned that the paper had a problem from Colorado College journalism professor Corey Hutchins’ newsletter. He wrote last Friday that the story in question had been taken down, and then — several hours later — came the retraction.

It seems that just about everything you could imagine was wrong with the story, including quotes, names and even the location of the Pentagon. The Camera frankly uses the word “fabricated” in describing what happened. The retraction does not name the reporter, but Hutchins does — April Morganroth, who would not comment when Hutchins contacted her.

A couple of observations about this remarkable lapse of journalism ethics.

First, we used to call this the “Romenesko effect,” after the pioneering media blogger Jim Romenesko, now retired. When he first began his work in the late 1990s, he would occasionally highlight some instance of fabrication or plagiarism that had gotten someone fired.

Oftentimes these incidents took place at obscure publications. Back in the day, young, inexperienced reporters caught in such instances of wrongdoing might, if they were sufficiently contrite, have a chance to start over at a different publication. The rise of online media such as Romenesko’s blog made that all but impossible since a reporter’s misdeeds would follow them wherever they tried to land. Maybe that was fair, maybe it wasn’t. But the rules had changed for good.

Second, it’s hard not to notice that the Camera is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Staffing, no doubt, is minimal, and Morganroth’s story may have been published with little or no editing. It’s possible that a diligent editor would have spotted problems, though maybe not.

Certainly large, well-edited papers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe have had issues with fabricators, so I don’t mean to pick on the Camera. But to the extent that the problems with Morganroth’s story were catchable, they were less likely to be caught at a paper with few newsroom resources than at one that still has a reasonable level of editing.

How a group of Denver area newspapers were saved from corporate ownership

Photo (cc) 2008 by Alyson Hurt

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Milios Davis was contacted by Jerry Healey, the co-owner — along with his wife, Ann Healey — of Colorado Community Media, which publishes 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs.

The Healeys were approaching retirement and looking to sell, and they were hoping to avoid turning over their life’s work to a corporate chain owner or a hedge fund. Milios Davis, vice president for strategic communications and informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation, serves on the executive committee of the Colorado Media Project, which has been seeking ways forward for local news since 2018.

That encounter, Milios Davis said at a recent webinar (you can watch it here; background information here), led to the sale last month of the Healeys’ newspapers to a new entity whose majority owner will be The Colorado Sun, a startup digital news operation that’s run as a public benefit corporation. That means the 24 papers, like the Sun, will not be organized to enrich its owners; any profits they earn will be rolled back into news coverage and other operations.

“These are still profit-making enterprises. It’s a business,” said Milios Davis, adding it would have been a “huge loss” if the papers had fallen into the wrong hands.

Also speaking at the webinar, organized by the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, were Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and managing director of the National Trust for Local News, and Larry Ryckman, editor and co-founder of the Sun. The moderator was Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the university.

According a recent article about the deal by Corey Hutchins of Colorado College, the papers will be owned by the newly formed Colorado News Conservancy, which in turn is co-owned by the National Trust for Local News and the Sun. Hutchins reported that the 40 employees who worked for the Healeys, about half of them journalists, would keep their jobs.

The conservancy is currently seeking a publisher, Ruiz said at the webinar, and has invested a considerable amount of attention in the process. “We didn’t want to create just a replication of who have we had some handshakes with over a highball,” she said.

The Sun itself, which was founded after the meltdown of The Denver Post under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is continuing to grow, said Ryckman — from a staff of about 10 when I wrote about the Sun for the Nieman Journalism Lab last fall to 15 today, with more on the way. He described the chance to save the community newspapers as something that was too important to pass up.

“At least on the Sun side, this came together pretty quickly,” he said. “This absolutely was a cause that was near and dear to our hearts…. We know who’s first in line when it comes to buying newspapers these days, and no one wants to see that happen.”

What helped jump-start the deal, said Milios Davis, was a study that the Colorado Media Project conducted several years ago in partnership with the Colorado Press Association. Among the findings: the number of journalists covering local news had been cut in half over the previous decade, in line with what was taking place nationally; and that of 151 newspapers they could identify, 93 were still locally owned.

“We saw on the horizon that a lot of these were … older owners” who lacked a succession plan, she said, explaining that there were 44 in that category. “We were looking at this as a tidal wave that would slowly crash on the shores,” which led to conversations about how to help them transition to new local ownership.

And then the Healeys came along.

One of the most important takeaways from what is happening in Colorado is that local news can still be run on a sustainable basis, and that corporate control and the gutting of newsrooms are not inevitable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I would love to see the Colorado story replicated across the country. Ruiz said the exact model being used in Colorado might be unique to that area. But she added that her organization is looking at what might work in other parts of the country — especially in communities of color.

So how do we wrest control of local news away from chain owners? Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman, who’s been everywhere lately (it also turns out that he’s a co-founder of Ruiz’s organization), wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times calling for tax breaks for newspaper owners who sell to nonprofits or public benefit corporations.

That would provide an incentive for the likes of Alden and Gannett to take their money and go home. I would add another incentive: tax penalties to be imposed on for-profit owners of newspaper chains of a certain size that are not owned locally.

Communities deserve a chance to take charge of their news and information. Three years after Alden all but destroyed The Denver Post, we’re starting to see a renaissance fueled by a new media venture and an old one that’s been given new life.

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