As newspaper advertising revenue continues its slump across the country, publishers are trying to hold on to one line of stable cash: the printed legal notice. In Connecticut, municipal leaders are pushing for a change in state law that would allow them to save money and cut back on those notices. And newspapers are pushing back.
Mike Killian was standing in the room where the presses used to run. He's an executive with the Record-Journal of Meriden, a newspaper that has been owned by the same family for five generations. Now, the presses are gone -- sent off to scrap -- and the room is empty.
"Cavernous, ice cold, because we don't heat it anymore, but we had seven or eight units in here, and we closed that down about five years ago," he said.
Killian said it wasn't easy to stop the presses and outsource the printing to a paper in Massachusetts. But it was basic economics. Now, his paper and others across the country are facing another economic challenge. Local governments want to be freed from the requirement that they print all of their public notices in a daily paper.
In Connecticut, municipal leaders want to save money by printing only shortened notices for things like contract bids, foreclosures and public hearings. And the rest could be found on a municipal website. Back in the warmth of his office, Killian said public notices bring in about two percent of annual revenue to each of the state's 17 daily papers.
"Two percent is a lot of money for every newspaper," Killian said.
But Killian says what's more important is this: a change in the law would be a blow to government transparency. Newspapers maintain the public record. He says if you take them out of the equation and move public notices to town websites, you're inviting foul play from unscrupulous politicians.
"Let's say you have a bidding notice," he said. "You put it up on a website and you take it down and you could actually just award it to your best friend."
Rick Edmonds is a media and business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists, who said the issue has come up a lot over the past few years in legislatures across the country. Typically, state press associations pounce and, in the end, nothing happens. But he thinks that will eventually change.
"In time -- I happen to think it will be relatively slowly -- newspapers will be losing both their clout and a bit more of their audience to alternatives," Edmonds said. "And they may just not be terribly persuasive in telling legislators that this is where the notices need to be because everybody reads the newspaper."
Kevin Maloney is a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which represents almost all of the state's cities and towns. To him, moving full notices online while leaving shorter versions in print is an obvious next step.
"It's catching up with the 21st century. Newsflash. Information is now distributed via the Internet," he said.
Maloney estimated that towns and cities across the state spend about $4 or $5 million a year for the printed notices. That's real money, especially in the eyes of local politicians who've been forced to try for zero-growth budgets. And he thinks that municipal websites are more than capable of handling the task responsibly.
"We fully recognize that newspapers are in challenging financial times," Maloney said. "But it's unfair to prop up the newspapers at the expense of local property taxpayers to the degree that it's going on now."
So, the question now is whether it's fair to prop up the newspapers at all and, if so, by how much? Lawmakers are trying to find some sort of compromise. But as the issues of local taxes and a free press get tangled up together, common ground can be hard to find.