WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
In Trenton, legislation that would relieve local governments of requirements to publish legal notices in newspapers is building momentum as officials look for anyway to cut costs. This could mean the loss of millions of dollars of reliable revenue to an industry already fighting to stay afloat.
Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) said the bill would give local governments the option to publish their legal notices on their own website. He said local governments could save as much as $8 million annually by skipping the newspaper ad buys.
"We have municipalities that are laying off cops and firemen," said Coutinho. "Every dollar they can save is something that can be used to put on their priority list."
The bill has passed both Assembly and Senate Committees.
Richard Vezza, the publisher of the Star Ledger, said local officials could use that prerogative to punish newspapers for their reporting. He said government would also be less transparent in the process.
"I don't think you want the dissemination of government information in the hands of the government," said Vezza. "That's just not a good idea."
And according to Vezza, eliminating legal notices from newspapers would exclude a sizeable part of the population that is not plugged into the internet from being able to track their local government.
How much the measure would save is an open question. The New Jersey Press Association said that out of the $20 million spent on legal notices in the state, 60 percent did not come from taxpayers but from the private sector.
For Assemblyman John Bramnick (R-Union), it is not just the potential of saving millions of dollars that drives his support of the legislation. He thinks that getting legal notices on the web will actually help insure more people can find them.
"Unfortunately, I think it is inevitable that this kind of small print on legal notices is really something that is an anachronism or eventually goes away," Bramnick said.
Bramnick noted that in his district, local web-based newspapers where now in the civic mix in a meaningful way. The New Jersey Press Association already aggregates public legal notices with an easily searchable data base.
New Jersey's not alone in re-thinking the legal notice newspaper requirement.
According to Matthew Weber at the University of Southern California, in 2008 there were 153 proposals by various levels of government in 40 states to water down or eliminate publication requirements. By some estimates, legal notices provide as much as 10 percent of the newspaper industry's revenue stream.
According to Weber's report "Insult to Injury: The Disappearance of Public Notices in US Newspapers," the Obama administration moved federal notices for asset forfieture to the internet to save the federal government $6.7 million over the next five years.
In 2009, Maine's highest court ruled that a published newspaper's legal notice was actually no longer "sufficient" notice in a legal matter because so few people currently read newspapers.
The ruling came in a case where an individual was suing someone in civil court for breaking their nose. The defendant in the case could not be located to be legally served. As an alternative, the plaintiff had the option of posting a legal notice in a local paper.
Ultimately the plaintiff got a $100,000 default judgement which Maine's highest court threw out.
The decision was chronicled in New England Press Association newsletter, which quoted Maine Supreme Justice Robert Clifford's opinion.
"Fewer people now read print newspapers, and those who do are likely to read them less intensely because a greater portion of the population obtains more of its information through television, the internet and other electronic media."