Disruption to legal ads: "You're coming with us!"

The Scales of JusticeIn the beginning was the newspaper, and the newspaper was with the people, and the newspaper was the people. And the people, being people, needed a place to put announcements of a legal nature in order to self-govern, so they chose the newspaper. This made sense at one time, but the model continues today, despite two important facts: One, the newspaper is no longer with the people, and, two, there are much more efficient ways to handle such things. Today, the “legals” section remains one of the last, highly profitable (and exclusive) branches of what’s left of the money tree that used to be the American newspaper.

Over the last few years, attempts have been made to remove the exclusive nature of these announcements from the newspaper industry, and the voices are getting louder. In Pennsylvania, a bill is moving through the state senate that would allow such announcements to be distributed through free, community papers, and the slight opening of the door to non-exclusivity is not going over well with Pennsylvania newspapers.

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer says the opposition is framing their argument as one of public access. Deborah Musselman, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, told the paper, “The idea was that people have a right to know what their government is up to,” adding that the bill would “make it a lot harder to know what your government is up to because you wouldn’t know where to look to find the information.”

Um, okay.

There’s been some name-calling in the matter, with newspapers being referenced as a “cartel,” and the free dailies being called “junk mail.” There’s a whole lot of money at stake:

Local governments now must place legal notices in a “newspaper of general circulation” in a county. The bill would expand that to include “community papers of mass dissemination” that are distributed free through the mail or delivered by carrier to all households in a political subdivision.

“Right now, the legal-advertising law grants an exclusive monopoly that doesn’t recognize that there are other bona fide options out there,” said Jim Haigh, a consultant to the Mid-Atlantic Community Papers Association, which represents 300 free papers in seven states, about half of them in Pennsylvania. “We are just looking for fair competition.”

Haigh argues that community papers would do a better job of getting the word out. They are sent free to every household in a community, while newspapers require a paid subscription that not everyone has.

The bill has the support of associations representing municipalities and schools, which long for cheaper ad rates.

“We are always looking for ways to get the message out to more individuals, but at the same time to save money,” said Holly M. Fishel, research director at the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

Whether this bill passes or not is just a blip in the overall disruption of the mass media model. I’ve yet to hear of any broadcasters getting into the fray, and that’s interesting, because eventually there will be a digital version of all of this. The technology exists today for law firms, school districts and municipalities to publish these themselves, to be aggregated by a smart third-party, and there’s no reason that couldn’t be any local media company.

That’s oversimplified, to be sure. These types of announcements are a part of our various branches of government, so they cannot be considered lightly. There are issues of accessibility to digital media by ALL members of the community, tampering with the announcements, and questions of governmental control of the Web — all things to be seriously weighed and discussed.

But this is another attack on the classifieds armor that used to be a primary revenue support for local newspapers, and it’s hard to believe this one will end pretty either.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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