May 13, 2010

House Committee considering stripping legal ads from newspapers

LANSING -- Weekly and daily newspapers struggling to survive could be dealt a deathblow if they lose legal ads that are a steady source of ad revenue, and that could happen under a package of bills the House Judiciary Committee is considering.

The Committee took testimony on Wednesday on a package of bills that would allow local governments to post the ads on their web sites or on their public access cable TV channels. The law requires the municipality to post notices of meetings and ordinances in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality in order to keep the public informed and for a permanent record. Some new ordinances can be very long, and depending on the newspaper’s ad rate, it can be expensive.

The Judiciary Committee took testimony on two packages so bills, but they did not act on them. Rep. Pam Byrnes, D-Chelsea, was the primary sponsor of a three-bill package – House Bills 5845, 4847 and 5847, that would create a definition of a newspaper and only allow a very limited use of alternative publishing for governmental notices where appropriate newspapers were not available.

Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor, is the main sponsor of another package that includes HB 5916-5917 and HB 5848 and 5853. That package gives local clerks more leeway to use the Internet, cable TV and other means for official posting.

“The heart and soul of legal notices is government transparency, and we take that very seriously,” said Rep. Rebekak Warren, D-Ann Arbor. “That’s where the future of communications going and the devil is in the details.”

A long line of local government officials testified in favor of the bills, saying how much it costs them to place the ads. However, a few local newspaper editors and members of the Michigan Press Association (MPA) did testify against the bills. Their position is that newspapers are more independent than a government web site, and publication in newspapers creates a permanent record that can be verified.

Although no vote was taken, the committee seemed to be leaning toward allowing legal notices to be published by the local government, but not everyone was 100 percent convinced.

“I was must be very old fashioned because I don’t have cable, and I consider myself an informed citizen because I read the newspaper,” said Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R- Mattawan. “A concern of mine is; when do we stop. Would we allow this for court notices and foreclosure notices?"

The committee haring lasted almost three hours, and there were still people waiting to testify. Committee Chair Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, said more testimony would be taken at the next hearing date next week.

No comments: