As for the legal ads
Newspapers, fearful yet another revenue source will melt away to online, have been fighting a rear-guard action to keep the right to publish -- and charge generously for -- legal ads, those arcane, legalese things buried in the paper that, if you really read them, could be a source of decent story leads (not to mention a heaping dose of voyeurism over who's getting sued, kicked out of their place, going bankrupt, etc.)
A Pennsylvania Patch opinion writer throws down the gauntlet over legal ads (we'll run 'em for free to attract audiences) in response to yet another newspaper column trying to block a possible shift of the ads online by the Keystone State's legislature. (Another recent newspaper meme: Link rot could make such online ads useless.)
As to that last point first: So how many of us have been to our - supposedly on paper? - newspaper morgues lately to look at some old, yellowed legal ad? (Uh huh, thought so.) In fact, try finding that morgue at your local oracle's offices. It's all been digitized, folks. And have you ever checked out the link rot on newspaper sites, what with paywalls and archives and all that? (Gimme a break.)
As to newspaper editor Stan Huskey's first set of points, which pretty much parallel the industry line:
- News flash. Not everyone has a computer. Nope, and lots of people don't read newspapers, either. It's standard rhetorical bluster to cite a figure for newspapers - actually to imply a figure for newspapers by saying more people read them than watched the Super Bowl (111 million) - and leave out any comparisons with online (where, unlike newspapers, you can precisely track how many people look at the ads).
- Public notices cost municipalities very little money, and in a lot of cases, nothing at all. Well, not quite true. Huskey has a point that some ad costs are baked in to what the government charges people like developers. But the Patch commentator has posted PDFs of his local county's ledger (provided through an open-records request), that shows it paid $200,000 for such ads last year. Who pays for all those ads from "voter services" for instance?
- And do we really want to take jobs out of the private sector and put them in the public sector? Isn’t government big enough as it is? Putting aside the tea party-type argument about big government for a second (guess you'll be willing to give up any tax breaks on paper, ink, etc., Mr. Huskey?), the nub of this whole conflict is in the first sentence. Huskey elaborates on it later: Let’s peel away yet another layer of the onion in an attempt to find out why our state legislature would continue to present bills that would harm the newspaper industry.
And, technically, another layer of the onion would be the jobs that would be lost if legal notices were taken out of newspaper.
So, why would some state legislators feel the need to harm, perhaps retaliate against, newspapers?
Could it be because we hold them accountable?
This isn't going to make me a lot of friends among the press associations I know and love, but they and their members have got to stop trying to play this card game with half a deck of truth.
Yes, there are good public service arguments to be made - and there are good counter-arguments on the digital side. Personally, I think the ads should be in both places because it's a multimedia world. Digital gives me easy access and the ability to search. Papers give me portability and a sense of semi-permanence.
But the real issue is money. Publishers don't want to give up what is as close to an annuity in this business as you can get. You don't have to go out and sell these things - the law mandates that the governments bring them to you - and because of the legally enforced stranglehold, you can charge a decent dollar.
Go ahead, frame it as a "save good journalism" and good journalism jobs argument, but acknowledge it for what it is - you need the money to help prop up a troubled business.
Just don't try to show half a hand and bluff the public. In the game of public opinion, the stakes are high. Eventually, they'll discover it (I think they're actually pretty cognizant of the truth so far), and you'll be labeled a cheater. That's a PR hole you don't want to be trying to dig out of.