Editorials, Opinion

Bills threaten local newspapers’ survival

It seems like every year, the West Virginia Legislature introduces at least one bill targeted at reducing newspapers’ revenue. This year, there are two.

SB 318 and HB 2715 both aim to reduce the number of legal ads placed in newspapers, instead creating and favoring a government-run website.

SB 318 would require the Treasurer to create a searchable database for unclaimed property public notices, while

HB 2715 would require the Auditor to create a “State Central Legal Advertising” website. We don’t object to the websites themselves; in fact, it would be quite useful for the public to have a searchable database. Our objections are to the part of the bill that reduce the number of times a legal advertisement must run in a local newspaper if the legal ad is also on the website.

As it currently stands, unclaimed property notices publish about once a year, with an entire list of all unclaimed or abandoned property. SB 318 would change that to one advertisement a year that directs readers to the searchable database, with no information about the unclaimed property itself in the newspaper. In its introduced form, HB 2715 would decrease Class II legal ads from one a week for two successive weeks and Class III ads from one a week for three successive weeks to one ad for one week if the ad is also on the auditor’s new website.

So why does this matter?

The most direct impact on readers is a decrease in government transparency and accountability. Most people don’t actively seek out legal advertisements; they just happen upon them as they read their morning paper. As an example, you may remember back in October 2020, one attentive The Dominion Post reader raised some questions regarding BOPARC spending he noticed in a legal ad. He submitted a letter to the editor, and we followed up with BOPARC to get an explanation for the expenditures in question. That’s not going to happen if legal ads hide in a database.

But there’s an indirect impact as well: Newspapers depend on advertising revenue.

We wish we could give you all your local news for free, but our reporters, editors, pressmen, carriers and administrative staff have bills to pay and families to feed. Advertising revenue allows us to offer the paper to readers at an affordable price. But with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting many local businesses, ads have been fewer, so the earnings are lower, and newspapers can’t afford to lose income from legal ads, too.

 It is not an option for newspapers to offset the decreased frequency of legal ads by increasing their cost. West Virginia state code sets a fixed price for legal ads depending on a paper’s circulation numbers — and those prices are nonnegotiable. The losses would have to be made up elsewhere. There’s no other choice.

Newspapers across the country have had to implement cost-saving measures in order to keep their newsrooms open. However, local newspapers are more important than ever in a time with so much change and uncertainty — a time when social media allows misinformation to proliferate virtually unchecked. Our Legislature should be supporting our state’s newspapers, not threatening their very survival.