Consumers and newspapers lose with new legislation

You may not think much of the public notices (we call them legals) in most community newspapers, but printing them, and printing of them correctly, is serious business. Public notices are also important revenue for newspapers publishing them. In some cases, eliminating public notice revenue from a small newspaper could put it out of business.

Assembly Bill 642, authored by Anthony Rendon (D-Bell), proposes to permit online publishing of public notices by calling Internet-only entities “newspapers of general circulation.” Yes, that’s correct. This bill is written so a website can qualify as a newspaper to increase business.

Affected would be notice of public meetings, name changes, trustee sales and business statements.

Rendon agreed to carry the legislation at the specific request of AOL, who owns the Patch local news websites. Patch is all over California and was the brainchild of current CEO Tim Armstrong several years ago.

The problem is Patch isn’t doing too well financially, having consistent quality, accuracy and local sales challenges. Plus, running a business based on local online advertising is a real tough go. I applaud their efforts, but their business model isn’t working and it’s been losing millions since it started. And now Mr. Armstrong is taking serious heat from investors to retire Patch.

So AOL’s latest idea is to take the public notice business out of the local communities to help their bottom line. If you can’t beat them, get a bill passed that calls your website a newspaper. It’s a classic case of big business versus small.

What this means is it’s optional to get them published in a newspaper, which means few people will do so. Knowing how accurate information is on the Internet, even as a consumer, this just doesn’t make good sense…unless you are AOL.

Newspapers are also best equipped to handle and guide a person through the fickle nature of the notices (one mistake and you start over.) The COURIER office manager and public notice expert Vickie Rosenberg put it this way: “The number one pitfall with an inexperienced person would be understanding the parameters of publishing different legal notices. Not all legals have the same guidelines. Some people take the paperwork home and fill it out. When they return, 90 percent of the time there’s an issue that would make the notice invalid.”

In addition to filing the notices properly with the courts, Ms. Rosenberg also makes sure all parties get hard copies.

I see nothing wrong with publishing public notices like city agendas on the Internet. Like the COURIER, just about every newspaper in the state has the information on their websites. But we need print, too. I’ve never seen a person hack a printed page, try a work-around to cut corners, or fix a mistake mid-stream.

How comfortable would you be if a person gave you a legal document printed off the Internet? How comfortable would you be with a blog qualified as a “newspaper” under AB 642 handling your legal matters? Customer service would mean clicking an email link and hoping for a timely reply.

I find people who support and sponsor this type of legislation have no clue what it takes to publish legals correctly.

In fact, under this bill, someone in the public notice business doesn’t even need a brick-and-mortar building and business office. You could easily be contacting someone far-far away. This was designed for AOL/Patch, because it’s impossible for them to staff every community.

Finally, the most popular argument supporters of AB 642 make is access. The Internet is a better place to find this information, especially in the digital age. But I ask, what about low-income families and seniors who may not have access to a computer? These are the people who are not heard and would be impacted the most.

Even with secure websites, public notices are legal documents, and should be treated as such. If Mr. Armstrong from AOL really wants to print public notices, just call me. I can recommend some great deals on printing presses.

I want to encourage our COURIER friends to contact the chairman of the Judiciary Committee (below) to lend an opinion about AB 642. Clearly, this is big business at work at the expense of consumers and local newspapers. Thank you for your help.

Bob Wieckowski

PO Box 942849, State Capital Room 4016

Sacramento, CA 94249

Email: assemblymember.wieckowski@


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