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

Tag: legal advertising

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.

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.

Tech thinker Jody Brannon on the digital future and the dangers of monopoly

Jody Brannon

The new “What Works” podcast is up, featuring Jody Brannon, director of the Center for Journalism & Liberty at the Open Markets Institute. Brannon started her career in print in her native Seattle. Never one to shy from a challenge (she’s an avid skiier and beamed in from the snowy mountains of Idaho), she transitioned to digital relatively early on in the revolution. She has had leadership or consulting roles at and, as well as the tech universe.

She served on the board of the Online News Association for 10 years and holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Maryland. The Center for Journalism & Liberty is part of the Open Markets Institute, which has a pretty bold mission statement: to shine a light on monopoly power and its dangers to democracy. The center also works to engage in grassroots coalitions, such as Freedom from Facebook and Google and 4Competition.

My Quick Take is on an arcane subject — the future of legal ads. Those notices from city and county government may seem pretty dull, but newspapers have depended on them as a vital source of revenue since the invention of the printing press. Now they’re under attack in Florida, and the threat could spread.

Ellen weighs in on a mass exodus at the venerable Texas Observer magazine, once a progressive voice to be reckoned with and home to the late great columnist Molly Ivins.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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