Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why HB 2403 - Public Notices needs to pass: More transparency, less cost to taxpayers, end the newspapers' monopoly

--This is about getting rid of corporate welfare. It will increase transparency and allow competition which lowers the price for consumers, and reduce costs overall for taxpayers and government. Lynne LaMaster from Prescott eNews calculated that a notice for a trustee sale currently costs $588. Government could save a lot of money by posting these kinds of notices instead on its own websites. A state like Maine would save $500,000 (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/business-news/the-biz-blog/161539/new-threat-to-classifieds-as-newspapers-legal-notice-franchise-comes-under-fresh-pressure-from-cash-strapped-states/).

--There is not much difference anymore between newspapers online and online news sources like us. Print newspapers are going away. When we point this out, the newspaper industry responds that their notices are also available online. Well, then that makes them no different than us.

--Our main site, intellectualconservative.com, has been around for 10 years and has over 6000 pages which have not changed. When the newspapers claim that you can't trust online websites to archive and preserve data, what makes them any better than other websites at archiving and preserving data? Newspaper websites change all the time too. Google also caches websites and archive.org takes regular snapshots of all sites on the web. The newspapers say they have hard copies to back everything up, but print newspapers are going away. When a customer buys a public notice from us, we can also send them a copy, a receipt, affidavit, notarization if necessary, and keep a record ourselves on our computers in addition to on the website. That's a lot of backup. I bet every single one of us also use standard backup software that is included with Blogger, Wordpress, etc.

--Any additional steps that need to be taken for more complex public notices will require us to work with other businesses such as title companies that take those additional steps. We are willing to do that just like the print newspapers do now.

--Right now key notices like foreclosure notices are completely unfindable on the internet. I run a bankruptcy law firm, and a home belonging to one of our clients was to go up for foreclosure sale a couple of weeks ago. If you google his address, you can't find any notice anywhere. The newspaper's aggregate database isn't indexable and searchable by Google. If we had posted that notice on our website, it would have been searchable and findable within a day. And I can tell you that NONE of our bankruptcy clients subscribe to any newspapers since we ask about that on our intake form. But every one of them, no matter how poor, has cable internet at home and at least one wireless phone with internet.

--The newspaper website that the Arizona print newspapers all use together for public notices, ananews.com, gets as many visitors as does icarizona.com, about 200 per day, when you look it up on the website ranking service alexa. Our main site gets thousands of unique visitors per day.

--The print newspaper industry claims that their central online site is best suited for public notices. Not true. If you do a Google search on --  Arizona public notices online – their ananews.com site doesn’t even come up within the first page of Google results. Lynn LaMaster’s Prescott eNews site comes up though.

--Although people in rural areas are less likely to have internet access than people in urban areas, they can get free access to the internet at libraries. The White House established the Rural White House Council last summer with a goal of providing internet access to everyone in rural areas, so their access is gradually increasing. Even people in rural areas who don't have internet access at home have wireless phones with internet access. They are more likely to find a public notice on their phone than in a print newspaper.

-- The CEO and Publisher of the Navajo Times from Apache County, Tom Arviso, Jr., spoke at last week’s hearing. He said that of the 300,000 people who live in that rural area, only 13,000-15,000 subscribe to his newspaper. Using his estimate of 3.3 readers per newspaper, that works out to 48,000 readers, or about 16%. Whereas 30% of people in rural areas have access to the internet. Therefore, more people in that rural area have access to the internet than they do the print newspaper. In Prescott, only 10% of people subscribe to the local print newspaper. Whereas 70% or higher of households have internet access.       

--The Goldwater Institute proposes an amendment requiring that government manage a list of approved websites for running public notices. Why must government expand and do this? Why not let a private organization, such as the one us bloggers and enews sites have already formed, Arizona Coalition of Online Media, manage this list, and let government websites just include one link to it? There are plenty of industries run by their own private boards, such as lawyers, realtors, Better Business Bureau, etc. Why can’t we self-regulate, and if something does go wrong with one of our public notices, that is what the courts are for.

--The Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office has objected to this bill but will support it if it includes the Goldwater Institute’s amendment. We are ok with an amendment like this if it’s absolutely necessary. 

--We do not like the additional requirement of requiring recording with the County Recorder’s office, that sounds like a red herring from the print newspaper industry to kill the bill. It will add another layer of bureaucracy, expense, and since it was not necessary in the past, it seems absurd to add it now.

--The print newspaper industry likes to point out all kinds of technical problems but they are all resolvable. Most of us who run online news sites are techies and some are attorneys, including myself and espressopundit.com’s Greg Patterson. We are completely capable of working through any technical issues, such as how long a notice should be posted, what form an affidavit should take, and what types of websites are acceptable. We recommend that they be local Arizona news/opinion websites that are updated at least once a week. All of these issues can be addressed with a simple amendment.

--The print newspaper industry claims that this bill was passed in Utah then repealed because it was so bad. This is not accurate. The version that was introduced in Utah was combined with additional legislation that reduced the amount of documents open to the public, and raised the cost of public records requests, giving it the nickname “the anti-transparency law.” In addition, the law only applied to urban areas and required all public notices to still run online in a centralized site controlled by the newspapers! “ It had nothing to do with allowing non-newspaper sites to publish public notices. “Under S.B. 208, any person required to publish a legal notice in a newspaper must also publish the legal notice on a website established by the collective effort of all of Utah’s newspapers.

--Virginia and Hawaii are currently considering similar bills.

--Conclusion: This is about picking winners and losers. The print newspaper business is dying and they have been using exaggerations and misleading information for 10 years to stop this legislation from passing. Right now putting a public notice in the paper is like hiding in plain sight. Passing this legislation will allow for the greatest transparency, competition for better pricing, and a lower cost overall to the taxpayers.            

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