Bill That Could Weaken Newspapers Financially Advances in State House

Feb 5, 2021

A bill ending requirements that governments and agencies place public notices in local Florida newspapers passed out of a Tallahassee civil justice and property rights subcommittee this week. 

The bill could cause financial harm to many papers, which rely on income from public notices to help fund their local journalism, according to Jacksonville Daily Record publisher Matt Walsh. The Daily Record is a WJCT News partner.

Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) said his bill will give Floridians greater access to public notices.

"Today governments spend tens of millions of dollars a year purchasing print ads in newspapers in public notices," said Fine.

However, an analysis of the bill done by the House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee did not determine whether it would save taxpayers money. 

The notices cover zoning changes, property foreclosures, government contracts and hazardous waste disposal. 

Under the bill, governments could choose to pay to place legal notices in print newspapers, but could also publish them in a searchable database conspicuously available online. 

“What this bill is intended to do is to exact some retribution against the big dailies in the state of Florida, which are often critical of Republican leadership,” said Walsh. “And so this is the way of getting back at them.” 

The Daily Record receives about 95% of its revenue from legal notices, Walsh said. 

Walsh disputed the idea that placing legal notices on government websites would help the public see them. “Even though people think newspapers are dinosaurs, the fact is that newspapers push notices out to the public, and there’s a serendipitous element attached to newspapers,” he said. 

“You page through a newspaper, you come across a zoning notice that you never would have come across had you not been looking in your newspaper. Now, that same notice, if you just put it online, who’s going to find it?” 

Opponents to the bill worry local governments will take the cheaper route.

"The brunt of this bill would fall on the very newspapers providing critical information to the most needy residents," said Tallahassee Democrat editor William Hatfield. "Small publications in communities without the plethora of information sources found in more urban parts of the state. There’s risk that these publications will have to downsize further putting their communities at risk of becoming so-called news deserts."

Fine said that’s not his problem. “It’s not our job to keep industries alive. That’s not our role." 

A previous version of the bill died in the Florida Senate last year.

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.