Thursday, June 18, 2009

UPDATE: Newspaper Interests Blocking Cost- and Job-Saving Reforms

Mayor Luken used to say you never want to go to war with people who print news for a living, and county governments across Ohio are learning that lesson right now.

In an effort to cut costs and generate revenues without raising taxes (which would allow us to save jobs and maintain critical services such as public safety), counties across the state have asked the state legislature to provide us with several new tools that won't cost one penny in tax dollars. Indeed, they would save hundreds of thousands.

The Senate, hearing our request for help, included them in there budget bill. Among them:

1) Modernize the public notice requirements to alleviate the thousands of taxpayer dollars spent buying page after page in the local newspaper for certain required notices (such as listing tax delinquent properties). Under new rules proposed by County auditors across Ohio, counties could use the internet to do much of this public notice--eliminating most of the cost of the advertising which is paid by the taxpayers to the newspaper. Real savings. Hundreds of thousands of dollars that can go instead to critical public services.

2) Allow counties to at least explore the option of online advertising for their websites. Of course, as other governments have done in different parts of the country (see this site, which includes advertisements from, each county would have to come up with rules to deal with conflicts of interest, prohibiting companies who do business with the county from advertising, etc. But the change in law would at least allow such discussions to take place.

Together, these two changes would help counties across this state alleviate some of their budget woes. And they could literally save taxpayer dollars and jobs--keeping patrols on the street and services going.

But they do have one thing in common. They directly or indirectly threaten some of the revenues of our friends in the newspaper business, including revenues that come right from the taxpayers. Our hope was that despite this, newspapers--seeing the squeeze placed on governments right now by the tough economy--would allow government to be creative, and save taxpayer dollars and jobs through these changes. Apparently that was naively optimistic.

Several days ago, the Ohio News Association, the lobbying arm for newspapers across the state, sent the following alert to its members . . .


(Another alert on public notice provisions is coming on Tuesday)

Attached are the sections of the state budget bill that propose allowing any and all county government offices to sell commercial advertising on their websites, including links to and from commercial websites. . . .

ONA opposes this provision and is lobbying for its removal from HB 1 as the conference committee resolves House & Senate differences in the state budget. The negative aspects of this proposal should be brought to the attention of legislators and the public. Among those negative aspects are:

· Government would be creating commercial websites in direct competition with private enterprises

· Government would be soliciting advertising from the same companies & businesses advertising on traditional commercial media, thus taking revenue away from media outlets in Ohio that are already suffering from the recession with massive cutbacks, including layoffs of media employees

· This concept presents the potential for abuse and misconduct as county offices would be allowed to solicit advertising from the same companies that are trying to get government contracts, or the same business people who may be contributing to the political campaigns of elected county officials

· This concept allows government to set up its own internal revenue stream, away from the oversight of taxpayers

· This concept allows government to operate with non-tax revenue, setting up the potential of avoiding voters whenever additional county revenue is needed

· This concept is a conflict of interest that violates the separation of government (the public sector) from business (the private sector)

. . . .

Please editorialize immediately against the proposal and call for its removal from House Bill 1.
Please write a letter calling for abandonment of this proposal.

Lo and behold, in today's Enquirer, look what ran. An editorial that basically repeats, point by point, these "scare tactic" and loaded talking points. (It's interesting that the editorial is so skeptical that government would be unable to create conflict of interest rules that separate advertising from their neutral performance of public service, yet the very business model of newspapers rests on an assumption that they are able to do exactly that when it comes to their advertising interests not interfering with their neutral coverage of news).

Interestingly, there was also no objection when then-Commissioner DeWine proposed several years back, and we explored, increasing revenue by placing advertising billboards on County property to potentially generate revenue. No real difference there except the medium of the advertisement, and who it would compete with.

UPDATE: The Enquirer today ENDORSED a public notice reform proposal that has just been put forth--but it is a watered down version, and would replace, the Auditors' proposal described above that would save the most money.

Let's face it. This is a very difficult time for all. We know newspapers are struggling, and as a firm believer in the importance of a strong press, I don't like to see them struggle at this time. I feel for reporters and staff who are going through furloughs, just as our public employees are.

At the same time, government leaders are working hard to find solutions to minimize cuts in services and jobs while avoiding asking the public to pay any more to government than they already do.

Let's call time-out on narrow special interest lobbying, and do what's best for the taxpayers and the public. Rather than killing cost-saving and job-saving reforms at a challenging time, at least let counties explore new tools and options such as these.


Quim said...

Public notices on the interwebs instead of the paper makes a lot of sense.
As far as ads on government websites go - I don't like it.
A. It looks cheap
B. Scripting, animations, Flash & other plug-ins slow down page loading times & cause crashes on people's computers. It's especially bad on people with older & slower computers and connections.
C. Conflict of interest (which you already covered).
D. Public perception of content. Look at what happened on Metro. PITA.

Anonymous said...

A lot of poor people aren't on line. They don't own computers and they don't have access. You might argue that they can just go to the library, but if you're working all the time and don't have a car it is very difficult to keep up with news that is only on line.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pepper,

How much does the County spend on the Court Index, which publicizes some legal notices, court dockets, etc.? The court docket information contained in the Court Index is often out-dated because of print deadlines. Much more accurate and timely information can be found elsewhere.

The Court Index is no longer relevant in this day and age and, yet, the County continues to pay for it.

But good luck trying to get rid of it. The Court Index owners made substantial campaign contribution
($10,000 each) to Patricia Clancy's campaign. You're likely to meet some resistance.

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