Sunday, December 22, 2019

Editorial: Three cheers for HB-7. (Historic City News)

(updated, 7 pm, December 22, 2019)

I agree with Mr. Gold's take on this anti-competitive subsidy to certain print newspapers in Florida.

Here in St. Johns County,  governments, all told, spend north of a half million dollars on newspaper advertising each year.  

Too often, that advertising buys off local newspapers in Florida, which hesitate to blow the whistle.

The result is a monopolistic newspaper market, dull Establishment newspapers, no investigative reporting, little local news and our government money wasted on ads, a self-perpetuating circle.

Perhaps state and local governments could negotiate with newspapers for better ad rates, preserving newspapers and differing points of view.  Otherwise, what do we get our money?

Several months ago, Jim Sutton's Saturday "thumbs and quotes" disappeared without a trace.

Since Jim Sutton's rent retirement as Opinion Editor of the St. Augustine Record, it has printed only "guest editorials," with no local editorial content other than letters.  The two page Sunday editorial pages have all but disappeared.

Meanwhile, GANNETT now controls some 20 local daily newspapers here in Florida, as well as First Coast News, the duopoly of Jacksonville ABC and NBC affiliates, which FCC unwisely permitted (over my objection) in 2003.

GANNETT is a behemoth controlled by a hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group, which also co-controls the real estate king owned by Florida East Coast Railway. Fortress sold the railway to Grupo Mexico and retained its control over its sister land company, GANNETT owns one in six U.S. newspapers, with 250 dailies and 300 weeklies, and operations in six nations.

Is GANNETT and GATEHOUSE management, combined in a cartel-like vice grip on newspapers, the worst of both worlds?

Under the First Amendment, is subsidy to oligopoly excessive entanglement?

Footnote: when Ernie and Anne Phillips and I started the Appalachian Observer in 1981, we faced the same built-in headwinds as new market entrants face today.   We were excluded  from the Tennessee Press Association because it required one year of business and a second class mailing permit, unavailable to newspapers that mailed out free copies of special issues.  TPA purported to define "legitimate" reporting, but TPA members, many of them small county newspapers, were eligible for journalism awards, discounted insurance and other services, and other valuable prizes simply for being long-established.  Money-Hungry Tennessee. publishers and their lawyers wrote and maintained the law as a barrier to competition.  Two of them sat on either side of TPA's then-president in 1983 at a TPA board meeting, when I took a bus to Nashville and told them off, on the way to visiting my mentor, Pulitzer Prize winning Nashville Tennessean investigative reporter Nat Caldwell.

Today, there's only one name on the Record's masthead, and he is not an editor, but a business guy.

From Historic City News:

Editorial: Three cheers for HB-7
December 17, 2019
Michael Gold, Editor
Historic City News

For years I have bemoaned Florida’s “Printed Newspaper Protection Act”, sections 50.011 and 50.031, Florida Statutes, that created a monopoly for mullet wrappers across the state.

These last-century laws, supported by lobbyists for the Florida Press Association and publishing juggernauts around the state, made sure that the legal community would buy their legal notices from news organizations responsible for our overflowed landfills and who poisoned the ground with toxic printer’s inks.

Once upon a time, a newspaper was the primary means of information delivery and gasoline cost less than $1.00 a gallon. In the twenty years since Historic City News has been publishing, though, that hasn’t been the case.

Under §50.011 F.S., any statutorily prescribed legal notice, advertisement or publication must be published:
“in a newspaper printed and published periodically once a week or oftener, containing at least 25 percent of its words in the English language, entered or qualified to be admitted and entered as second-class matter at a post office in the county where published, for sale to the public generally, available to the public generally for the publication of official or other notices and customarily containing information of a public character or of interest or of value to the residents or owners of property in the county where published, or of interest or of value to the general public.”
Further, §50.031 F.S., requires, in part, that such newspapers:
“shall have been in existence for 1 year and shall have been entered as second-class mail matter at a post office in the county where published, or in a newspaper which is a direct successor of a newspaper which together have been so published.
I am not certain that a legal notice published in the print edition of The St Augustine Record has met all those requirements since the bankruptcy. With more people getting their information online, shouldn’t public notices go digital?

If you think you would be more likely to see a notice posted to a public website or Internet-based news journal, you are not alone. Besides us, of course, you think like Florida Representative Randy Fine who thinks public notices should be online rather than on the back page of a newspaper.

Fine would require legal notices to be posted on a “publicly accessible website,” defined as “a governmental agency’s official website or other private website designated by the governmental agency for the posting of legal notices and advertisements that is accessible via the Internet.”
The bill doesn’t ban agencies from buying newspaper ads, though it would allow for another type of print advertising — direct mail. Governmental agencies would need to buy an ad once a year in a publication “delivered to all residents and property owners throughout the government’s jurisdiction” letting them know that they can register to receive public notices by email or snail mail.
Fine, a Brevard County Republican, filed a similar bill last year. It passed through the full House but wasn’t picked up in the Senate.

The existing laws are contrary to the reality of current technologies that are in widespread public use. They are a fat chunk of political pork that has only lined the pockets of a few men vested in the printing business and the sleezy lawyers who lobby our legislature on their behalf.
Over the past 20-years, members of the St Johns County legislative delegation have all read Historic City News. The time has come to put aside the PAC money from FPA and do the right thing for your constituents — adopt HB-7 and support this overdue legislation in the Senate.

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