June 8, 2021

Public notices have remained a reliable revenue stream for print newspapers even as most other advertising categories decline. How the ads are placed, unfortunately, mostly has stayed stuck in the 20th century.

Enter Column, a 10-month-old startup platform that allows local governments self-service placement and simplifies production, billing, proofing and legal requirements for publishers — a sort of digital assist to the print business.

In its short time in existence, it has gained clients including The Washington Post, McClatchy and Ogden Newspapers and has affiliated with eight state press associations, most recently California’s.

As I first wrote nine years ago, proposals to allow digital-only self-publishing of legal notices pop up annually in state legislatures. It falls to state press associations to try to beat them back, almost always successfully.

Column is the invention of Jake Seaton, a 20-something, fifth-generation member of a well-known publishing family that owns The Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury. His father is publisher/editor-in-chief of The Mercury and his grandfather was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the late 1990s.

It would make a good story to say that Seaton invented Column in his Harvard dorm room and dropped out (à la Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates) to pursue his vision. That’s close but not quite right, Seaton told me.

He did drop out and went to work for Quorum, a new platform for public affairs professionals, with an eye to learning fine details of how successful startups worked and an ambition to then do something as an entrepreneur for newspapers.

Then he dropped back in, graduated in 2019 and mapped out Column with faculty at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Seaton credits his idea to pursue Column to a meeting in that period with David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, as he was scouting out possible new business ideas.

I’ll let Chavern take up the story:

I mentioned to (Jake) that legal notices were really important to publishers, but notice requirements were under continual attack from state legislatures. Rather than sit back and suffer assault after assault, it would be good if someone attached to the industry figured out ways to actually improve the legal notice system and make it more difficult to attack.

There are really good public policy reasons for legal notices not to be a matter of self-reporting by governments, but that is the outcome we could get in some states if we don’t make the system better ourselves.

Jake obviously really took on that task. I know that some people are suspicious of his efforts but it is hard for me to imagine that there would be tech entrepreneurs who would be more sympathetic to news publishers.

Competitor vendors do provide formatting software, but Seaton thought it did not go nearly far enough. The argument that newspaper placements are essential to reach the broad public still resonates, Seaton said, but “the industry needs to drive improvement.”

In particular, there is a job to be done in unraveling billing and legal verification, which take multiple complex steps including mailings back and forth to lawyers’ offices.

Column makes its money by charging a small commission on each ad placed. Acceptance of the fee has not been a problem, Seaton said, since the digitalization of the process saves so much time.

Typical of startups, Column has venture investors, just a few employees, the beginnings of revenue and a goal of profitability later — for none of which Seaton would provide numbers. It is organized as a public benefit corporation, an increasingly popular straddle between for-profit and nonprofit.

The startup’s connection to press associations is for visibility, not a separate line of business. It offers free technology for the associations to collect member notices on a shared database site and looks for the deals to act as a calling card to potential clients.

In a press release last month, Charles F. Champion II, president of the 700-member California News Publishers Association, wrote, “We are intent on finding ways to help CNPA members adapt to and benefit from modern technology. … Column adheres to that strategy. It is the most cost-efficient and customer-centric public notice platform on the market. It transforms notice operations for publications of any format and distribution.”

Adoption of Column’s technology seems to me likely to defuse but not entirely eliminate state legislative moves to relax the requirement for newspaper placements. This year the drama played out in my home state of Florida, where a bill to allow digital-only posts apart from newspapers got diluted late in the session to merely loosening circulation requirements.

Two factors may still work against the industry’s case. Print circulation, perhaps unnoticed by busy legislators, has fallen sharply in recent years and continues to plunge. So the notion of complete community coverage by what appears in the print paper is a stretch.

Goodwill toward the industry is also on the wane — for instance in Florida, where a Republican legislature and combative Gov. Ron DeSantis relish taking on the media.

Even if it offers only a respite, however, Column can be a boost to an industry in a painful and extended transition to a digital business base. Seaton seems to have both a good product and a youthful burst of marketing enthusiasm. (Column is meant to convey both columns of advertising and columns holding up a structure. It comes — a first for me — with a GIF for a logo.)

(Column)

I asked Seaton whether his longer-term plan is to go back to Manhattan, locally known as the Little Apple, and run the family business. He didn’t say no, but did reply, “right now I’m focused on steady growth and hiring for new roles as we grow.”

Correction: Column launched 10 months ago, not six. We apologize for the de-aging. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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  • From someone on the other side of this issue …

    My father passed away on January 10th of 2020. As part of the probate, we were required to post a notification in an adjudicated newspaper for the city in which he resided, which was Palm Desert, California.

    The newspaper was The Desert Post Weekly, and because they are the only option in that jurisdiction, the charge was a usurious $1,000.

    Upon further investigation, I learned that this newspaper didn’t even have a website. Their phone number had been disconnected. They have no real news content. It is a subsidiary of Gannett.

    My attorney said that in larger cities like L.A. or San Francisco, there is competition for newspapers, but because my dad passed away in a smaller town, the newspaper can charge whatever it wants.

    In the days of the internet when people buy globally, the idea of a local throwaway newspaper providing useful information to creditors is laughable. This is an archaic practice. I understand that many newspapers are struggling to survive, but to do so on the backs of grieving families is wrong. Provide value and excellent content and people will happily spend money. I subscribe to three newspapers.