A Government Subsidy of Newspapers?
By David Ferguson
Newspapers, particularly the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, receive significant income from publishing state and local government notices and from publishing legal notices. Numerous laws require notices to be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the state.
Years ago, newspapers were the only way to notify the public of detailed information. The newspapers had a large subscriber base and if you weren’t a subscriber there were lots of coin operated newspaper machines. Even if you didn’t buy a newspaper you could find a copy in barbershops, cafes, auto repair shops, hotels, and just about any place where you might have to wait.
Subscriptions have gone down, the Democrat-Gazette’s coin operated machines have disappeared (or at least most of them) and over the last several months the Democrat-Gazette has converted many counties to digital only subscriptions, except for Sunday newspapers.
The Democrat-Gazette is fighting for its survival. It announced it will convert all subscriptions to digital with the exception of having the option to receive a printed newspaper on Sunday. So far, it’s Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is not in the plan to eliminate print newspapers on weekdays.
It is not just the Democrat-Gazette that is fighting for its survival. Across the nation newspapers are failing.
But in changing to digital format, it has killed its argument that public notices must be published by newspaper.
Once the internet became common place, politicians began asking why the state should spend money to buy advertising in a newspaper to publish its public notices when the state could reach the public by posting the notices on its own website.
In the 2019 legislative session Senator Scott Flippo filed SB409 to allow cities to choose whether to issue invitations to bid through newspaper notices or through a notice posted on the internet. The Democrat-Gazette was largely successful in turning back the challenge to its grip on the government notice business. The amended bill (now Act 1075) still allows local governments to publish the notices on the internet but through a contractor and the amendment still requires local governments to continue to publish the notice in a newspaper. As amended, the financial incentive to publish on the internet instead of a newspaper is gone. The revised legislation shows the political power of newspapers but just the fact such a bill was filed may foreshadow a significant change in the law on how public notices are done.
With the Democrat-Gazette switching to delivery through the internet, the laws requiring notices be published in a newspaper become nothing more than a government subsidy of the newspaper business. Will Republicans really subsidize the newspaper business by keeping the public notice laws as they now exist?
There is something else to consider, as a taxpayer do you really want to get your news from a government subsidized source, and doesn’t that run the risk of having the news read like a government press release?
The Democrat-Gazette can no longer argue that it is a cheaper alternative for those who can’t get internet service or can’t afford it. Now to get the newspaper you must not only spend money to subscribe you also have to have internet access. Then there is the cost of advertising paid by the state, local governments, and those who need to publish a legal notice.
And what if the unthinkable happens? What if our state’s largest newspaper fails as have 180,000 other newspapers between 2004 and 2018?[i] Then what happens to government notices? A special legislative session with hastily drawn legislation would be necessary to minimize the disruption of notices that could take place.
I have been a digital only subscriber to the Democrat-Gazette for seven or eight years and was a print subscriber for decades before that. Before I see my digital newspaper, I have already seen many of the news items from other internet sources. Yet I still enjoy having the Democrat-Gazette primarily for state news. I hope the move to an internet publication will save the Democrat-Gazette.
As for the newspaper’s grip on government notices and legal notices, I think it unlikely to continue much longer.