Last Wednesday there was a hearing before the Alabama Legislature’s State Government Committee concerning House Bill 102, which would modify current law to allow free newspapers like Lagniappe to sell public notices/legal advertising.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile), would remove a current requirement that a newspaper must first have a publications class permit from the U.S. Post Office before it could legally run public notices. The law has created a situation in Mobile County where very small newspapers are able to run these ads while Lagniappe, with a far larger circulation and readership, may not.
The hearing came hot on the heels of a resolution unanimously passed by the Mobile City Council urging passage of HB102 be made law.
“Whereas, approval of HB 102 will provide local government with publication options to meet the legal requirements of advertisement, which not only opens up free enterprise and competition, but also allows local greater fiscal responsibility with tax-payer dollars … the Mobile City Council endorses HB 102,” the resolution stated.
The bill is opposed by the Alabama Press Association and its membership. At the hearing, Kenneth Boone, an APA board member and the owner of Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc., spoke in opposition to HB 102 saying the “current method works” and “there’s nothing standing in the way of any publication that wants to become qualified.”
“Industries are regulated because there should be a level of assurance for customers. The rules are there to follow and they’re there for a reason,” Boone said. “I can imagine a free distribution newspaper or a high school newspaper would not be an acceptable method of informing the public.”
Free newspapers are unable to get the required postal permit because the Post Office requires more than 50 percent of the paper’s circulation be paid.
Boone took a good bit of heat from Reps. Ed Henry and Ralph Howard, who grilled him on why exactly he and APA feel the restriction is best for the taxpayers. Henry said the point of legal advertisement was to inform the public, not to “subsidize papers.”
“You believe it serves the public interest better if the state or county pays for a public notice, and then you charge the public to look at that notice … as opposed to them having the ability to look at that free?” Henry asked Boone.
Citronelle Call News publisher Willie Gray also addressed the committee, complaining his newspaper would have the additional expenses of keeping its postal permit if the law were changed to make it legal not to have one. Gray’s newspaper has been the biggest winner in the ongoing shift of public notice advertising in Mobile County, which was once dominated by the Press-Register. Last year, from Mobile County alone, the Call News was paid $51,836 for running public notices, according to county records. So far in 2015 it has already been paid $25,734.
During last year’s election cycle, The Call News was paid a total of $43,150 through the Probate Court, which included a cost of approximately $38,000 for running the voters list. From just those two sources last year, The Call News made just south of $100,000. That does not include the large number of probate ads run by attorneys, or other advertisements purchased through a private firm on behalf of banks and other businesses.
For the past several weeks The Call News has been averaging about eight pages of public notice advertisements a week.
In 2014, the Press-Register was paid $108,216 by the county for legal advertising, including a one-day run of $67,679 for the delinquent taxpayers list. So far in 2015 the P-R has only been paid $3,016 by the county.
At the end of the hearing, HB 102 was sent to a subcommittee to be worked on in hopes it can get out of committee. More than a couple of committee members admitted they were being pressured by their hometown publishers not to vote for the bill.
Another bill, which would only affect the city of Mobile is also being offered, but it needs the approval of a supermajority of the county’s legislative delegation.
The Circular saga. City v. P-R
The battle between the city and the Alabama Media Group continues and keeps getting hotter.
After it looked like the City Council was going to be voting this week on an ordinance that would essentially leave AMG and the Press-Register having to deliver their much-despised circulars Yes! and Gulf Coast Life onto residents’ porches and doorsteps, the council backed off this week to reevaluate.
There’s probably little doubt the latest delay is due to a letter fired off from AMG and the P-R’s attorney Archie Reeves threatening a lawsuit if the ordinance is passed. Reeves points out the ordinance would make delivery of these circulars cost-prohibitive for “The Company” as it is jointly referred to in the letter. The Company also continues to claim the city’s efforts are a violation of its First Amendment rights “on the basis of conditions that are impossible for the publisher to meet, and on and on.”
Reeves cited a case in which the Cleveland Plain Dealer, also a Newhouse-owned publication, successfully fought and won a lawsuit over a similar issue.
Reeves said The Company is working to fine tune the way delivery is being handled as well as the performance of the “do not deliver” phone number, which many citizens complain does not serve to stop delivery of unwanted publications and circulars.
While the saga goes on, one thing that is clear is how much things have changed. One longtime local media person commented to me the other day that, given its dominance not so long ago, who would have ever imagined the day when the city would take on the Press-Register.