The recent bidding to publish the Mobile County Voters Roll offers some pretty hard evidence as to why our local state legislators blew it in the last session when they refused to change an archaic law that would allow more competition when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars on legal advertising.

Looking at the bids after the fact, and doing a little digging, it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what the Mobile County Probate Court will be getting from the bid winner, The (Citronelle) Call News, or how many papers they actually print. The north Mobile County weekly is claiming some extraordinarily explosive growth over the past year, which raises a number of questions.  

The Call News bid $39,000 to print the roughly 150-page voters roll and include it in the paper’s Jan. 27, 2016, edition. Publisher Willie Gray wrote in his bid, “The Call News currently has an average distribution in Mobile County of 12,000 distributed through mail and through single-copy sales.” The strange thing about that is at this time last year, The Call News only had a circulation of about 5,400, according to the publisher’s/owner’s statements filed with the U.S. Postal Service and published in the paper itself. When I called them earlier this year, several months after that statement was filed, an employee told me circulation was close to 6,000.

That’s a pretty astonishing circulation growth for a small newspaper over about six months — 120 percent — but it gets even stranger. When I looked up The Call News’ publisher’s statement for 2015, which ran in its Oct. 28 issue, Mr. Gray’s signed statement claims a whopping 20,780 in average paid circulation — a 351 percent boom. I looked back at the publisher’s statements starting with 2009 and the paper basically started out at 4,200 circulation, bumped up to about 7,000 a week, fell back to 5,400, then exploded this past year just as the issue of public-notice advertising landed front and center.

So somehow, in about six months, The Call News went from having a circulation of 6,000 papers to AVERAGING for the year a paid circulation of almost 21,000! Maybe the folks at The Call News don’t understand how averaging works, but it’s impossible to have almost half the papers in a year at 6,000 and average 21,000 unless they suddenly jumped to publishing roughly 30,000 newspapers a week. But on that same statement, Gray listed the circulation of his Sept. 30 paper at 22,000, so getting the average to nearly 21,000 would appear to be impossible.

As regular readers may know, Rep. Chris Pringle sought last year to have the law changed statewide that requires newspapers to carry a Publications Class Permit from the U.S. Postal Service in order to be a newspaper that may run public-notice advertising because free newspapers like Lagniappe may not have that type of permit. The effort was immediately squashed by the powerful Alabama Press Association lobbyists, backed by newspaper publishers across the state, fearful of any competition for this lucrative advertising.

Pringle then offered a bill that would simply change this law for Mobile County, which would then allow Lagniappe, with a weekly circulation of 25,000 newspapers, to compete for the business being enjoyed by The Call News, the Press-Register and, to a lesser extent, The Mobile Beacon.

The city of Mobile, the county and the Mobile Bar Association all asked our legislators to pass this bill in order to offer more competition, but the fix was in. Rep. David Sessions refused to allow a hearing on the bill because some of his colleagues didn’t want to vote for it, but didn’t want their constituents to see their anti-competition stance. So the bill died.

Lagniappe is in the process of trying to get the postal permit, but it takes time and building subscribers. In the meantime the question worth asking is, are the taxpayers getting the best deal when it comes to running these legally mandated ads?

It’s hard to understand why The Call News would only insert the voter roll in 12,000 papers when its publisher claims to be printing more than 20,000.

The other question raised is why was The Call News’ price the same this year and last year? Last year the paper claimed a circulation of 5,400 in its ownership statement, but still charged the Probate Court about $39,000. That’s a cost of $7,222 per thousand papers. At 12,000 the cost per thousand is a still-hefty $3,250.

By comparison, the Press-Register’s bid was $65,254 for its Jan. 24 Sunday paper for a 6-point font in 51,448 papers — $1,269 per thousand — or a 9-point font for $94,238 — $1,833 per thousand. The P-R also offered Wednesday at $39,693 and $50,203 for 6- and 9-point fonts, respectively. Those are per-thousand costs of $1,607 and $2,033 each.

Lagniappe could have done the job for $34,400, a cost of $1,275 per thousand, and gotten the roll out in the county’s population center. We were invited to submit a bid along with the others, and we did so knowing we couldn’t win because of the postal permit, but hoping it might show that competition could save money.

I wrote to Gray a couple of times to ask him to explain the wild changes in his newspaper’s circulation and why he claims 12,000 in Mobile County circulation in his bid, and a total circulation of more than 20,000 in this year’s postal report. I didn’t hear back from him before deadline. Not surprisingly, no one on staff will tell us The Call News circulation and their own advertising information kit doesn’t list a number.

Most of the public-notice advertising in Mobile County has moved away from the Press-Register in the past few years and landed at The Call News, which is great for that publication, but it still makes no sense that David Sessions and a few other state legislators want to keep Lagniappe from being able to compete for this business because they want to protect Mr. Gray or have political grudges against the way we’ve covered the news. The people hurt are the taxpayers, who have to shell out more money for these ads. And if anyone needs any proof that the postal permit regulation offers proof of nothing, I think The Call News has proved that.