August 22, 2022

This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

They are usually not the most scintillating content in a newspaper: the small-print legal notices that local, state and federal governments are required to publish to inform constituents of what they are doing. 

But from a business point of view, the notices, which cover everything from rezoning requests to sidewalk café permits, are a vital stream of revenue for U.S. newspapers at a time when other traditional advertising revenue continues to decline. Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than 2,500 newspapers, a quarter of its total.

Yet in some states, including Florida and Colorado, that revenue stream is under threat as politicians move to eliminate the requirement that legal notices be printed in newspapers of record. In some cases, the push to drop statutorily required legal notices is being described as a budget-cutting move in a digital age. In others, it is openly being portrayed as punishment for negative media coverage.

“I don’t think the concept of legal notices is controversial. There needs to be a nonpartisan way to officially announce what the government is doing. What’s controversial is how it happens,” said Richard Karpel, Executive Director of the Public Notice Resource Center, an organization that tracks the status of legal notices in all 50 states. “We’ve seen it become more of a partisan issue in the last five or 10 years. In some states, there are Republicans who are in battle with the media as part of their political strategy. To that extent, it has become partisan.”

Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have introduced legislation that would move public notices from newspapers to government websites. Before 2022, none of those bills had passed, mostly because of opposition from state press associations, Karpel said. But this year, Florida lawmakers approved a bill that allows government agencies to post their legal notices on government websites if they determine it costs less and they can show there is sufficient broadband access for residents to easily see them.

Florida can bypass local newspapers

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a critic of the media, signed the measure in May. The bill becomes effective Jan. 1. That concerns David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a leading news industry trade group. “It’s a bad idea to expect the government to put out notices about itself. There’s a component of self-interest where the government deciding where to post is just not sound public policy,” he said. “I think the people who say, ‘Just let the government put stuff on their website’ are missing that.” Karpel expects there will be litigation over ambiguous language in the bill and said that might make government agencies reluctant to ditch newspaper notices all at once.

The fight over legal notices in newspapers also has come up repeatedly in Colorado. During an April 2020 press conference, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis called the third-party public notice requirement “stupid” in the age of the internet and said he would consider signing a bill to do away with it once the pandemic was over.

This spring a tussle broke out in Westcliffe, the seat of Custer County, a small jurisdiction in south central Colorado with a year-round population approaching 5,000. The Wet Mountain Tribune, the town’s century-old newspaper, lost the bid to publish legal notices to a nine-year-old partisan newspaper called the Sangre de Cristo Sentinel even though the Tribune submitted the low bid. In a public meeting, two of the three county commissioners voted to move the designation of “paper of record” to the Sentinel, which bills itself as “the Voice of Conservative Colorado.” One of them cited the Tribune’s “combative” coverage as the reason for the change.

Losing legal notices has cost the Tribune between $10,000 and $15,000 a year in direct revenue, said Publisher Jordan Hedberg, who has led the paper for the past four years and was a reporter there before that. The loss is likely higher because of the halo effect of being the paper of record, he added.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that governments can’t use contracts to retaliate against protected speech, but we have a county commissioner retaliating against us for doing our job,” Hedburg said. “Basically, the only way we are going to qualify is if we don’t write anything that irks this particular commissioner.” Hedburg said he is considering filing a federal lawsuit challenging the county commission’s move on First Amendment grounds.

This summer, in another part of the state, Pitkin County commissioners pulled legal notices from The Aspen Times, the town’s oldest newspaper, saying its new out-of-town owner, Ogden Newspapers, needs to regain the community’s trust after a messy libel suit involving a local developer with ties to Russia.


Affluent Aspen is rare among small towns, as it is served by two competitive newspapers. Rather than eliminate the printed legal notices, or direct them to a partisan operation, the commissioners voted to make the Aspen Daily News, rival to The Aspen Times, the official paper of record.

Small newspaper revenues at risk

Les High, a longtime publisher in a small town in North Carolina, estimates that small community papers could lose 20-25 percent of their revenue if legal notices went away, compared with only a 5 percent loss for larger dailies. “It’s the little guys who are under threat,” said High, who now runs the Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit public-interest news site that covers four North Carolina counties. “They’re struggling already and they’re in counties without large revenue streams from retailers. If we lost public notices here, I bet you would see 15-20 percent of small newspapers disappear.”

In light of the ongoing fights around the country, all U.S. newspapers should be taking steps to ensure they continue to be recognized as the best place for legal notices, several media advocates agreed. “Newspapers must be proactive,” warned Dean Ridings, the former head of the Florida Press Association and now the CEO of America’s Newspapers, an advocacy group. In 2012, for instance, under his leadership, the Florida Press Association pushed the state to change its statute to require that when a legal notice appears in a newspaper, it also had to be published online and on a government website that aggregates legal notices across the state. Other states have followed suit.

In the digital age, another thing newspapers can do is to send alerts when legal notices are filed that affect subscribers in particular geographic areas or those who have indicated there are topics of interest to them. “We can do some self-examination as an industry,” said Chavern. “We need to lead with technology, making notices digitally available, actually very available, rather than it being a passive experience. It’s incumbent on publishers to get better and better.”

Adds Ridings: “Publishers need to look for creative ways to push those out. Maybe it’s a bigger button on their website. Maybe it’s having a standing report once a month. This would be a good time to devote effort to making them easier to find digitally. We know how to do those things.”

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Susan Chandler is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who previously taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated…
Susan Chandler

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