Wednesday, November 18, 2009

House Bill would reduce legal advertising rates and expand reach of public notices

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Bill 1876, which would require newspapers to reduce legal advertising rates by 25% and put all legal advertising on the Internet. The Associated Press has written about the bill, but there seems to be some misunderstanding about how legal rates are set and what this bill would accomplish. The bill would immediately save local governments across Pennsylvania millions of dollars, a goal that local government officials and their representatives claim to have. It would also keep legal notices in newspapers -- a fixed, independent, verifiable medium -- and at the same time put them on newspaper Web sites, which are among the most widely read Web sites in their communities and across the Commonwealth.

Yet the bill's detractors continue to make statements that are misguided and in some cases, inaccurate.

Representative John Evans, R-Erie, is quoted in the AP article as saying, "We don't know what the rate was yesterday, we don't know what it was last month, we don't know what it was last year," and "We're talking about discounting a rate that is a mystery." This is not accurate. Every municipality and government unit across the Commonwealth knows exactly what legal advertising rate it is paying. Different newspapers charge different rates, based on their market and circulation numbers. Obviously, it costs more to run a legal advertisement in a major city's daily paper, which may reach hundreds of thousands of people, than it does in a small weekly paper, which may have a circulation in the thousands. This doesn't make the rate a "mystery," it simply means that it varies from community to community and newspaper to newspaper. The rates are not secret. Many newspapers have their legal advertising rates on their printed rate cards. Others will provide the rate over the telephone. The rates themselves are set forth in public records, in the form of invoices, for every government agency that has paid for advertising. The fact is that many newspapers already charge a government advertising rate that is lower than the rate charged to commercial advertisers.

Doug Hill of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has said that his organization and other local government representatives are against the bill because it would not help them reach "the greatest possible number of people." In fact, the opposite is true. Data shows that web traffic on government Web sites, where government groups want to put legal notices, is a small fraction of the traffic found on many newspaper Web sites. Readership remains strong at newspapers and their Web sites. Just this week, Scarborough Research released a study showing that 74% of adults -- nearly 171 million -- in the United States read a newspaper in print or online during the past week. The numbers are even higher among readers with college degrees. No government Web site can even come close to that – yet the local government groups continue to argue that individual government units should be able to post and control the entire public notice process. That is not reaching “the greatest possible number of people.” Far from it.

House Bill 1876, while certainly not what newspapers want (what business wants to reduce its fee by 25%?), would, in fact, serve the "goals" of local government better than any proposal they have put on the table. It would put public notices on Web sites where people could find them and more people could read them, as opposed to hiding them on 3,000 different government-run Web sites. At the same time, it would maintain them in a fixed, verifiable, archivable, independent medium, where the 30-40% of Pennsylvanians who do not have Internet access could continue to read them. And all at significant cost savings to government.

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