By Art Gallagher
New Jersey’s “legacy media” is so desperate to remain dependent on government subsidies in the form of mandated legal advertisements that their trade association, the New Jersey Press Association, offered to cut the advertising rates for taxpayer funded ads in half so long as they could increase the fees for legal ads paid for by private parties.
The newspaper industry was caught off guard earlier this week when legislation to allow New Jersey’s governments to publish meeting dates, proposed ordinances, zoning applications, sheriff sales, etc., online rather than in daily or weekly newspapers was introduced and fast tracked for approval before the end of the year. Since then they papers been editorializing to rally their readers to put pressure on the legislature to scrap the bill and save their revenue. Their arguments have been unseemly; Governor Chris Christie is pushing the bill as revenge on newspapers for their coverage of the Bridgegate scandal, that the elimination of legal ads would lead to less transparency and chicanery on the part of government officials who might not publish the ads as the law requires and that municipal and county governments publishing their own legal notices on the web won’t lead to savings.
Apparently the publishers fear that their campaign is not working. Thus the hail mary proposal to cut their fees in half. Members of the legislature should resist the emotional temptation spare the newspaper industry the inevitable migration to vital government information being accessed online rather than in print. Our elected leaders and representatives should not fall for publishers’ plea to save journalists jobs with public dollars. The management of New Jersey’s largest newspaper publisher, Gannett, did not make an emotional decision when they laid off 400 people after acquiring the Bergen Record/North Jersey Media. They made an economic decision. Our government leaders should make an economic decision for the benefit of their “shareholders” –the public.
In their current printed form, legal notices are more likely to be read by sad souls selling their jewelry or shopping for sexual favors than by citizens interested in attending a Planning Board Meeting or in buying a foreclosed property. The usefulness of legal ads has already been supplanted by the Internet and social media. Recent public opposition to proposed developments in Eatontown, Howell, Manalapan and Middletown is a testament to that fact. Citizens are getting their information online and sharing it with each other.
Printed classified ads are obsolete. Newspapers publishers themselves are invested in online classifieds. They use the empty space in their printed classified sections to encourage readers to visit their online classifieds websites like cars.com and careerbuilders.com.
The public will be better served by having legal notices available online. As painful as it will be in the short term, the news industry will be better off in the long term by being independent of government subsidies.
One of the arguments the newspapers make against the bill is that municipalities and counties will incur more labor and technology costs to publish the ads. The legislature should allow the governments to adjust their fees from private entities required to post ads in order to cover those costs.