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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Killing what's left of the press

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It's often been theorized that small-town newspapers have the best hope for surviving the withering of the print media that's occurring in every large city in America — including, of course, Atlanta. If that theory proves to be correct in Georgia, it will be despite the best efforts of state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon

Last year, Staton introduced a bill — SB 391, to be exact — that would effectively deal a death blow to most small and mid-sized newspapers in Georgia by stripping them of lucrative legal ads. Described simply, his measure would shift legal ads and public notices from local papers onto a website authorized by the Secretary of State's office.

The danger of Staton's bill, which has yet to be reintroduced this session, is not that it has powerful backers — although it does — or that he's particularly skillful at pushing bills through. The danger lies in the fact that his idea — or some version of that idea — actually makes a great deal of sense.

Legal notices, of course, are the small-print items regarding probate wills, tax lien transfers, incorporations and so forth that almost nobody other than attorneys bother to read. (With the exception of divorces — those can be juicy.) But, because the law requires these notices to be publicly advertised, they are very lucrative to any newspaper that holds the local contract to print them. So lucrative, in fact, that getting certified as the local "legal organ" is a business model in itself. For instance, the Beacon newspapers in north Fulton were, I suspect, launched two years ago with the goal of cornering legal ads for that area's small cities — and probably couldn't survive without that income.

Now, it should be noted that there was speculation that Staton's introduction of the bill was somehow influenced by a sizable campaign contribution from Global Notice, a California-based outfit that specializes in — you guessed it — winning government contracts to maintain legal notices online. In fact, we even gave Staton a Golden Sleaze award for his efforts.

But, aside from whatever sleazy motives may be involved, putting legal ads online likely will — and should — happen soon. As the legal organ for Fulton County, the Daily Report already has searchable online ads, but many small-town papers don't have this capacity. And even if they did, it seems a more efficient service to the public to have a single online location for all legal ads, as recommended in the Station bill. Fifty years ago, it made sense for legal notices to run in the East Bumblefuck Tribune. Nowadays, not so much. How much longer will it seem reasonable for cities and counties to spend tens of thousands of dollars to print ads that can be easily pulled up online?

The Georgia Press Association is so worried about Staton's bill that it launched Georgia Public Notice, its own version of a statewide site for legal ads, in hopes of rendering further change unnecessary.

I'm certainly not advocating for doing away with printed legal ads — such a move would kill off dozens of small newspapers across Georgia virtually overnight — but they do seem like yesterday's technology. New Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, a co-sponsor of Staton's bill, seemed to agree when I talked to him. Just because these papers are clinging to an outmoded business model is not a compelling enough reason for keeping it in place, he said. Much as I hate to say it, that's a position that's hard to argue against.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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