One of the stranger things in the Alabama newspaper business has to be legal advertising/public notices. Lagniappe got into this business a few years ago after officials from both the county and city asked us to, citing a desire for more options.
What followed were years of trying to jump through hoops to get postal permits and an Attorney General’s opinion that Lagniappe is OK to run such ads. Along the way, though, we came to realize there are extraordinary lengths newspapers will go to in order to get and keep this business. It’s not as simple as providing a cheaper option that reaches more people.
For example, even though Lagniappe now has a larger circulation than the Press-Register and is 45 percent cheaper, both the city and county continue spending most of their legal advertising dollars with the P-R. A recent study performed by the county on its legal advertising expenditures broke down this way for Fiscal Year 2018 – 2019: Alabama Media Group (AMG/P-R) – $118,966.33; Citronelle Call News – $48,180.55; Lagniappe – $2,619.59.
The county employee who conducted the study said the main reason she found that various departments still use the much more expensive P-R for legal ads is because they like the person selling the ads. That’s nice, but not very fiscally responsible.
The city’s numbers from the beginning of the year through the end of August were more equitable, although still leaning heavily toward the New Jersey-based chain. Through August, the city had spent $26,774.55 with AMG and $17,409.10 with Lagniappe.
Both city and county governments could have saved considerable money using either Lagniappe or the Call News for those buys.
As you can see, the amount being spent by local government on legal advertising is significant, and we’re not even counting state buys or universities and public schools.
Newspapers must have a U.S. Postal Service publications class permit in order to sell legal ads in Alabama. Part of having such a permit means publishing an Ownership Statement each year. This is a federal document for which there are supposedly fines and criminal charges for supplying “false or misleading information.” And that has turned each October into a look into what some companies will do to sell those legals.
In the past I’ve documented the impossible paid circulation gains claimed by the Call News on its ownership statements. But now it’s the Press-Register’s turn.
Last year the Press-Register’s ownership statement listed its publisher as Tom Bates, editor as Michelle Holmes and managing editor as K.A. Turner and gave an address in Birmingham for all three. This information was problematic, as state law and an Alabama Supreme Court ruling require newspapers selling legal ads in a county to have their primary offices and editorial decision-making in that county.
Admitting everything is handled in Birmingham essentially renders the P-R a bureau of The Birmingham News. As such it would be illegal for the P-R to sell legal ads in Mobile County. When Probate Court Judge Don Davis became aware of this situation, he decided to get an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter of whether the P-R is now a bureau.
But first the judge contacted Bates, who wrote a letter apologizing for the “confusion” and claiming Dewey English as the P-R’s editor, and David Holloway as its managing editor, and promising to clear up the mistake. So this year’s ownership statement listed both men at those positions and Bates as publisher, with all three listed as working at 18 S. Royal St. in Mobile. Judge Davis said this new information was enough for him to withdraw the request for an AG’s opinion.
But there are still issues. First of all, even in the very paper in which the statement ran, Dewey English was listed as news editor and Turner was listed as senior editor, while Kelly Ann Scott is vice president of content. English was listed last and Holloway wasn’t on the masthead. Both Turner and Scott work out of Birmingham.
So I called Tom Bates to ask what was up. I asked if he had an office in Mobile, but he wouldn’t answer. I asked how often he worked in Mobile and he wouldn’t answer. I asked if editorial decisions were made in Birmingham or Mobile, and he wouldn’t answer. Those all seemed like very simple questions. He told me to email all my questions, which I did more than two weeks ago, but surprisingly he never wrote back.
I called English and he confirmed Bates does not have an office in Mobile and that he only works here a few weeks out of the year, mostly day trips. And while English did say he is the editor and Holloway the managing editor, he admitted story assignments and decision-making come from The Ham. This corroborates what former reporters and other employees have told me as well.
In Gulf Coast Media v. Mobile Press, a 1985 Alabama Supreme Court decision spawned by the P-R’s efforts to claim a Baldwin section of its paper as a stand-alone paper that would allow them to sell legal ads, the court made it clear there can only be one principal editorial office for a newspaper.
“The term ‘principal’ as used in the statute clearly allows for only one main, primary, chief office where the major editorial functions occur for the entire newspaper,” the court ruled in rebuffing the P-R’s attempts to go outside its lane.
It looks like the same thing is happening again, this time because the P-R abandoned Mobile and moved nearly all the departments and decision-makers necessary to run a newspaper to Birmingham. It seems pretty obvious the Press-Register, as it now exists, is nothing more than a bureau of The Birmingham News. Pick up a paper and count the locally produced stories. It’s obvious.
Meanwhile, local tax dollars are being wasted buying more expensive advertising in a newspaper that isn’t really legally allowed to sell them here. The P-R’s latest ownership statement seems to prove pretty clearly that Tom Bates knows they don’t meet the requirements, otherwise he wouldn’t have changed the statement to make the claim he works from Mobile, or removed the names of the true editorial decision-makers.
I’m sure some would consider it fraudulent for a newspaper to sell legal ads in a county where its leadership knows the paper doesn’t meet the requirements to do so, especially when so many tax dollars are involved.
Does anyone in public office around here care that fewer taxpayer dollars would be spent with either Lagniappe or the Call News, which actually do have main offices in Mobile County? The world may never know. But at least it is clear what Alabama Media Group is willing to do to keep those ads coming.
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