As this week’s rag hits the streets, Lagniappe is preparing for a hearing in the State Legislature on a new bill to try to remove the requirement that a newspaper carry a publications class postal permit before it can publish public notice advertising.
Those who have followed this saga know Lagniappe is seeking to have this requirement removed in order to be able to compete for the lucrative public notice advertising currently being split almost exclusively between the Press-Register and Citronelle Call News. Naturally, neither one of these entities is very interested in seeing more competition and have been active in letting our legislators know their feelings.
As it now stands, House Bill 561 would change the way things are done in Mobile alone. An earlier bill, HB 102, has been stranded in a House subcommittee, with most of the committee members urging the issue be handled as a local bill so they won’t have to deal with the ire of their hometown publishers or the Alabama Press Association. HB 561 will be voted on only by members of the Mobile Legislative Delegation, and a supermajority will be needed for its passage.
As a free newspaper, Lagniappe is unable to get the postal permit required without beginning to charge for our newspaper and radically altering the business model we have used for nearly 13 years. Trying to comply with the current law would not only cost our readers, it would likely financially destroy this newspaper.
It is our contention the postal permit is nothing more than an arbitrary barrier used by newspapers across the country to keep out competition. The APA, Press-Register and Call News, among others, have argued the permit creates a federal standard for newspapers and ensures they are being honest about their circulation. However, Lagniappe’s research has found that not to be the case. The Press-Register, for example, has not been audited by the Postal Service in at least 20 years, according to officials in the Mobile Post Office. And according to Citronelle’s postmaster, the Call News hasn’t been audited recently; in fact, the postmaster had no idea when or if it was last audited. It appears the vast majority of “certified” newspapers simply turn in a form each year to the Post Office and whatever numbers are put on that form go unquestioned.
While a majority of the Mobile County delegation has expressed support for the bill, there are still a number of legislators struggling to decide.
Call News publisher Willie Gray declared in a column last week that Lagniappe is trying to “skirt” the law and simply needs to follow existing rules. As I explained to Mr. Gray, we are not “skirting” or disobeying any law — we are going through the normal legal channels of trying to change an unjust, unethical and restrictive law, just has been done thousands of times across this country and this state.
Currently, the Call News, with about 5,500 papers a week, The Mobile Beacon, with about 5,200 papers, and the Press-Register are the only newspapers in the county that can legally accept this type of advertising. Such advertising is required by law and is typically run by law firms handling foreclosures, wills and other probate issues. Governmental agencies also publish them when announcing a range of activities that affect citizens. The Mobile City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last month urging the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow Lagniappe to compete for this business, thus offering local governments and law firms another option.
One amendment to the bill has been offered to alleviate the concerns some legislators have that a change will be detrimental to smaller local newspapers. This amendment would allow those purchasing the ads to buy them in two publications and have those newspapers’ combined total circulation counted in the event of any challenges that might arise suggesting the notices were run in a newspaper too small to be considered “general circulation.”
It is our belief this change would allow the city or county to buy public notices in Lagniappe and a smaller locally owned newspaper like the Call News or Beacon and still save money over what they are currently paying the Press-Register. This doesn’t require the buyers to do this, it’s just an option, but one that might allow those running the ads to get better coverage at a better price.
Obviously this newspaper has a vested interest in seeing this legislation pass, but we also do believe the current law constitutes an illegal restraint of trade.
Those who want an example of how the standards for free newspapers differ from those that already have their postal permits, look no further than the way the Call News distributes many of its newspapers. In many locations the Call News is put in a wire rack, just like Lagniappe, but they have attached a tube to the side where readers are supposed to put 75 cents when a paper is taken.
When Lagniappe floated a similar idea to the Postal Service as a means of obtaining the required permit, the Postal Service told us we would have to then get at least 12,500 affidavits from people who took papers out of the rack and put money in the tip jar.
At this time, it seems likely HB 561 will have a hearing and be voted on within the next week or two. We’ll keep you updated on what’s happening.
Former Press-Register editor Stan Tiner, who has been at the helm of the Biloxi Sun-Herald for the past 15 years, announced his retirement last week.
Tiner joined the Press-Register in 1992, along with its then-new publisher Howard Bronson. Both had worked in Shreveport, Louisiana, with Tiner as editor of the Shreveport Journal. He left the Press-Register in 1999 to become editor of The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City but ruffled the publishers’ feathers and quickly ended up back at the Sun-Herald in 2000.
Tiner led the paper during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Sun-Herald picked up a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage. He announced his last day at the Sun-Herald will be September 1.