Writings and observations

Much as we love newspapers and worry about their ongoing sources of revenue, Ryan Blethen’s industry-pitch piece in the Seattle Times today – defending the newspaper role in publishing legal notices – doesn’t hold up.

Didn’t, really, a decade and a half or so ago when Ridenbaugh Press met from time to time with weekly newspaper editors and publishers and warned that the legal notices which long have been a key piece of income for them (less so, as a major slice of income, for dailies) eventually would go away. The web would make the newspaper component unnecessary and irrelevant, and that has real financial consequences for many newspapers (a reality certainly not relished here).

If it was true then, it’s a lot more true now, when so many newspapers see their web presence far outstripping print, and when so many people are accessing their information – of all sorts – on line primarily.

Blethen was concerned about Washington House Bill 1818 (from Representatives Ross Hunter, D-Medina, Zach Hudgins, D-Tukwila, and David Frockt, D-Seattle), which “Requires the department of information services to establish and maintain an online database for the purpose of publishing county legal or official notices required by law, or by an order of a judge or court.” That would open the door to maintaining a central, government-operated, online place where public notices – of ordinances, sheriff’s sales, regulations, zoning actions, bankruptcies, judicial orders, the run of government regulation – would be housed and made accessible.

Newspaper owners and their association are, of course, strongly opposed.

Blethen’s argument: “If newspapers are cut out of the process, government will control the public-notification process. The public deserves a middleman that ensures the message is delivered. Governments cannot be trusted to handle the entire process. Another flaw with Hunter’s bill is that it ignores reality. If everybody in the state had Internet access, there could be an argument made. But that is not the case, especially in rural and poor areas. Newspapers are still the easiest way to reach the most people. Take The Seattle Times, for instance. We reach about 70 percent of adults in King and Snohomish counties. No way government websites have, or ever will have, that kind of reach. How often is a person going to check out a state-run website packed with legal notices from every county in the state? Not often.”

Who’s out of touch here? If government agencies were going to mess around with the notification process, they could do it right now before delivery to newspapers – newspapers have no particular means to check on what ought to be posted as an ad. Internet access is broadly available, through libraries if nothing else, and the portion of population reading (print) newspapers has been falling hard – the lines probably crossed some time ago. How can anyone seriously argue that in 2011, print newspapers are more easily accessible to more people than the Internet? As to the concern about a state website becoming so large as to make the noticing unwieldy – oh please. How many people read carefully those long columns of agate in the papers like the Times running page after page of them? If they could be searched and divided as a good database would allow, though, they might be far more useful. And not just in one newspaper’s local circulation area, but world-wide.

Budget crunches of the moment may be part of the immediate prompt for this direction, but this is the way legal ads will be disseminated in the future. It will probably happen as soon as the newspaper lobby no longer is quite strong enough to hold back the inevitable.

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