By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Florida

Virginia will allow public notices to be published in digital-only news outlets

Public notices may not be the sexiest part of the local news business, but the revenue they bring in is crucial. Also known as legal ads, these notices — usually placed by local government to announce public hearings, bids and other business — must, in most states, be published in a print newspaper. But this requirement has come under question in recent years as more and more communities find themselves without a viable print paper. Why not let them advertise in a digital news outlet?

Recently Virginia became the first state to allow that option. ARLnow, a digital site that covers the Arlington, Virginia, area, reports that the state legislature recently approved a digital-only option by “overwhelming bipartisan majorities,” and that Gov. Glenn Younkin has signed it into law. The new system will go into effect on July 1.

The proposal, put together by the Virginia Press Association and a group of online publishers, requires that a digital outlet meet certain benchmarks in terms of readership and local staffing. According to a statement by Betsy Edwards, executive director of the press association:

The Virginia Press Association believes that independent, third-party local news sites (print or online) are the best place to publish government public notices. We supported this legislation because it utilizes local newspapers and news websites to provide the public with maximum transparency.

The Virginia law is just the latest sign that the monopoly held by print newspapers over public notices is beginning to break apart. Last year Oregon passed a law allowing public notices in replica editions with paid subscribers, and Indiana is on the verge of adopting a system that would ease, but not overturn, the print requirement.

In Massachusetts, there has been talk of changing the system, but proposals to allow digital-only publication are in the very early stages. It’s not an easy issue. Some independent print newspaper owners argue that public notice revenue is vital to their bottom line, and that it would be unfair to allow digital-only outlets to get that money.

On the other hand, there are some absurd situations out there. Bedford officials, for instance, advertise in The Sun of Lowell, a chain-owned paper with virtually no presence in the town, even though the community is covered by The Bedford Citizen, a digital nonprofit with a significant footprint.

What really matters is that government be required to advertise in independent outlets — unlike Florida, for instance, where one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-press actions was to push legislation allowing officials to post public notices on their own official websites.

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There may be less to the Florida blogger bill than meets the eye

Sen. Jason Brodeur

I want to question the prevailing wisdom about the so-called Florida blogger bill, which would require independent paid bloggers to register with the state if they write about top elected officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis. The proposal has been described as an outrage against the First Amendment, with Noah Lanard of Mother Jones going so far as to say that the bill was inspired by Hungary’s right-wing authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

But what if there’s something else going on here? I was struck by this article in the Tampa Bay Times in which the sponsor of the measure, Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur, compared bloggers to “lobbyists.” The bill would require bloggers to disclose who paid them for posts about elected officials and how much they received. Failure to comply could result in fines of $25 for every day they’re late, up to $2,500.

Brodeur would exempt bloggers for news organizations, and that may help explain his intent. Kirby Wilson, who interviewed Brodeur for the Times via text message, wrote that when he asked if the bill could cover journalists who write for digital-only outlets, Brodeur replied: “If they’re paid to advocate a position on behalf of a special interest, yes.”

It seems to me that what’s going on here is that Brodeur wants to require bloggers to disclose where they’re getting their money from if they’re being paid by political campaigns and other politically oriented organizations. This is not remarkable. By law, political campaigns and lobbyists must disclose their spending. A few years ago the Federal Trade Commission was threatening to go after food bloggers who were accepting freebies to write nice things without any disclosure.

Of note is that Jacob Ogles of the website Florida Politics forthrightly portrays Brodeur as targeting “pay-to-play blog posts” and quotes Brodeur as saying: “Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk. They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists have to register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”

Now, let’s be clear: Brodeur is no friend of the press. He recently filed a bill that would weaken libel protections for news organizations. And the blogger bill is apparently something of a mess, with Wilson observing that the actual language contains nothing that would protect independent bloggers who aren’t lobbying on behalf of a special interest. Brodeur hasn’t even been able to find a sponsor in the Florida House.

But there may be less here than meets the eye. After all, there’s a considerable distance between requiring lobbyists who blog to disclose their political activities and the repressive tactics of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

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Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

A huge step forward for McCain

Democratic leaders must be unhappy tonight. By designating John McCain, finally, as the frontrunner, Florida Republicans have given a huge boost to the strongest candidate who could be nominated in terms of appealing to independents and conservative Democrats. McCain’s hardcore support for the war in Iraq may be poison in November. But he’s far more likely to expand his vote beyond the Republican base than Mitt Romney.

At 71, McCain is an old-fashioned guy. He’s wearing a hideous tie (no, not the one in the photo), and he began his speech by talking to the folks in the room, not the television cameras — reminiscing about his naval training in Pensacola, introducing Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. Mel Martinez and several members of Congress. He also hailed Rudy Giuliani, who’s likely to endorse him this week. That will be huge, as it will unite moderate Republicans around one candidate.

Now he’s giving his stump speech, aimed at solidifying his shaky support among conservatives. “I am as proud today to be a Republican conservative as I was then,” he said, repeating his frequent line of being a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” Essentially it’s a list of conservative nostrums aimed at trying to unite his party, complete with a whack at judges, always popular with the red-meat crowd.

“We have a ways to go, but we’re getting close,” he said in closing. “And for that you have my profound thanks.”

Live-blogging note: When I don’t edit myself, I tend to write “huge” a lot, don’t I?

Photo (cc) by marcn. Some rights reserved.

Romney speaks

Romney’s speaking now. By all rights, he should be just about out of it now. But it’s a strange year, so who knows? He seems nervous and upset, but that doesn’t necessary presage a pullout.

One of the more unusual findings I saw on CNN tonight was that McCain beat Romney solidly among voters for whom the economy is their most important concern. The economy has been Romney’s mantra since Michigan, but it didn’t work in Florida.

Romney: “I think it’s time for the politicians to leave Washington and the citizens to take over.” He’s running through his usual talking points, bashing “Hillarycare” and teachers unions. He’s for families and the military. And George W. Bush. But he really sounds like he’s straining — very different from Giuliani a few moments ago. Then, Giuliani had known for weeks that he was going to lose.

I can’t imagine he’s going to quit quite yet. He’s got money, and, as Huckabee continues to fade, he might pick up the evangelicals.

But it looks like the Republicans finally have a frontrunner, and it’s not Mitt Romney.

Closer than it looks

It’s now McCain, 35 percent, and Romney, 31 percent, but they still won’t call it. What’s going on? Take a look at this map from Most All (that’s a lake!) of the untallied counties are from the Panhandle. This is going to get tighter.

Oh, and now the word is that Giuliani is going to pull out and endorse McCain. And here we go — the AP and Fox just called it for McCain.

Does Florida look like America?

This is pretty amazing. Forty percent of Democrats who voted in the Florida primary were 60 and older. Among Republicans: 44 percent. Only 9 percent of Democrats are under 30, and only 7 percent of Republicans. Not sure how that plays out in the Republican primary, but it certainly hurts Obama, who got pasted tonight in the no-delegate beauty contest.

McCain, 34; Romney, 31

But no indication of where the votes are coming from. Presumably, Romney’s going to do better in the conservative Florida Panhandle, where the polls closed an hour later. So, uh, maybe I’ll just watch for a while.

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