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home : opinion : opinion December 11, 2019

8/28/2019 9:20:00 AM
About 'Legal' Advertising
Isn't it time NC moved into the 21st Century?

Wayne Howard
Staff Writer

It's no surprise to anyone that the days of newspapers being the primary source of news are behind us. A 2018 survey of US adults found that 64% at least sometimes get news from a news website or app, about the same (64%) as those who said they watch local TV news. Almost half (47%) of adults get news at least sometimes from a social media site. That exceeds the 41% who read newspapers in print. TV and print actually lost ground from a similar survey conducted in 2016, while digital made advances in preference since then. The experts agree that in 2019, online news has surpassed other outlets as the preference of a majority of Americans.

The world has changed, but some want to hang onto the past because it favors them economically. Legal notices can be dull stuff, but newspapers want to hang on to a requirement that they be published in a print newspaper. Some of them likely couldn't survive without that income.

Bills that would change public notice laws were introduced in 21 states this year. Almost all failed to pass, but North Carolina’s legislature approved one (or we should say part of one) after considering a bill introduced by State Senator Trudy Wade of Guilford County. Her bill would have removed the requirement that municipal and county governments publish their legal notices in newspapers. Instead, the local government would be allowed to post the notices only on their websites, saving taxpayers the cost of paying for legal ads. The local governments could also charge private attorneys who want to post legal notices on the government websites and the revenue from those ads would go toward teacher-pay supplements.

The bill didn't pass as presented, but in a compromise, Guilford County will now be able to post its notices on its own website instead of buying newspaper ads since the change Wade requested was piggy-backed into another unrelated bill that was passed and sent to Gov. Cooper for his signature.

As noted, communication is increasingly digital and newspapers’ print circulation is declining. Why keep paying for ink on paper? At the Lincoln Herald, we get calls every week from attorneys who want to publish a required legal ad. We tell them--truthfully--that if they wanted to reach more people, we're the right choice, but if they're just publishing the ad to meet a legal requirement, it will have to be printed in the local newspaper. We provide them the phone number.

Newspapers have also lost another long-time source of revenue: classifieds that are not legal notices.  We at the Lincoln Herald publish selected classified ads for individuals FREE. Newspapers are now having to compete by selling regular advertising for businesses.  That makes those legal ads more important to their revenue stream than ever.

In Massachusetts, a new law that went into effect this year developed as a compromise to discussions about allowing government agencies to bypass newspapers: it requires newspapers to publish legal notices online as well as in print. The state’s newspapers are also required to run a statewide website to collect all of the notices. That was already happening in New Jersey.

North Carolina is now in the minority of states with its requirement for publishing legal ads only in print newspapers.

We agree with Senator Wade: it's time we recognized that we're now in the 21st Century. If her bill had been passed as presented, it wouldn't have created a windfall of legal ads for us or other online sources--it would have saved cities and counties thousands of dollars they are currenty required to spend on legal ads.

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