Now, in what newspapers in his state are calling little more than an act of revenge, he’s trying to push through a bill that would cut a substantial portion of their revenue.
New Jersey, like every other state, requires governments to post public notices to inform citizens about certain events. These ads ― also called legal notices ― vary from state to state, but typically cover matters like bidding for public contracts, hearings, sales of government property and foreclosures.
Historically, public notices have appeared in print newspapers. As of 2000, they made up an average of 5 to 10 percent of newspaper revenues, according to a National Newspaper Association study. And with readership and ad revenue declines in recent years, public notices have remained a comparatively reliable source of income for many papers.
But on Monday, the New Jersey legislature, encouraged by Gov. Christie, decided to fast-track a bill that would permit municipalities to cease running public notices in local papers and instead post them on their own websites.
In theory, the legislation could save local governments a decent amount of cash. A 2012 Poynter study found that a midsized city spends about $20,000 a year running public notices; a larger city like Syracuse, New York, budgets around $200,000; and a state the size of Maine may spend some $500,000.
In reality, the effects of the bill are a bit murkier.
For starters, building, maintaining and constantly updating a secure website isn’t exactly cheap. The costs of a city going it alone could very well wipe out any savings.
There may not be much benefit to local residents either. Many newspapers already publish the notices on their websites as well as printing them. And not everyone has internet access.
“Given the extra personnel and cyber security responsibilities of hosting the ads on a municipal website this will entail, this effort could very well end up costing taxpayers more money, not saving them money,” Miriam Ascarelli, president of the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, told The Huffington Post.
Ascarelli pointed to a financial estimate from the state’s Office of Legislative Services to back up her concerns. “I suspect small municipalities with limited staff will feel the most strain,” she said.
From an accountability perspective, putting a government agency in sole charge of maintaining the transparency of such legal notices is a recipe for trouble.
But as the New Jersey Star-Ledger tells it, the bill’s true threat is to a free press.
“Statewide, 200 to 300 journalists would lose their jobs, and some papers would no doubt fold,” the paper wrote in a blistering editorial Wednesday. “That’s the evil genius behind this bill. It would wipe out hundreds of watchdogs, and give the worst politicians a new way to fight those left standing.”
“This is the work of a bruised governor who is reviled by most citizens of the state,” the editorial warns. “He blames that on the press ― not on the scandals, the lies, and the undeniable failure of his leadership. This is his revenge.”
Author: Ryan Grenoble