Business & Economy

With print news fading, lawmaker pushes to let digital-only platforms publish legal notices

Newspapers line the rack of a store in Brattleboro. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When The Hardwick Gazette stopped publishing a print paper in 2020 because of economic woes exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the paper was dealt another financial blow.

The small Northeast Kingdom weekly could no longer pull revenue from legal notices — the announcements local, county and state governments are required to issue when they take certain actions — since state statute demanded they be published in print.

“We weren't a physical paper anymore,” Gazette Publisher Ray Small told Vermont Public Radio in December. “So that's caused further erosions.”

The Gazette is not alone. Across the Green Mountains, papers such as the Milton Independent and The Essex Reporter also ditched their printed product at the start of the pandemic. Other papers are teetering on the edge of a digital-only world and have cut down on how often they offer a print edition. 

By resorting to an online-only paper, the publications lose out on a steady stream of cash that could help keep them afloat. Small towns, meanwhile, have to find a new paper that can print the state-mandated notices.

To remedy the predicament, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, introduced S.174, a bill that would allow digital-only outlets to publish legal notices. But critics say the proposed legislation might hurt Vermont’s landscape of tiny print newspapers, which for centuries have earned the trust of their communities.

White co-sponsored a similar bill in 2017 with Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, that never made it out of the Senate Government Operations Committee. 

Years later, the bill is still not needed, said Mike Donoghue, a longtime Vermont journalist and president of the Vermont Press Association. 

“We went through this a couple years ago,” Donoghue told the Senate Government Operations Committee at a Jan. 21 hearing. “Your committee looked at it and determined there wasn’t a need to move, so I’m not sure why we’re here.”

Yet Anne Galloway, the founder and editor of VTDigger, argued the increased uptake of digital news in Vermont and around the country is a sign that legal notices also should shift to an electronic format.

“We are asking you to spearhead the transition to electronic notices as more community newspapers go online only,” Galloway told the committee Jan. 21. “It is critically important that electronic notices — a lifeline for local news organizations — be permitted as a substitute for print legal notices.”

Galloway said her outlet — which is many times larger than the smaller papers that typically print legal notices — would not seek to publish local or county notices, the bread and butter of community newspapers. It would instead seek to publish statewide notices, which are currently printed in more than a dozen newspapers.

“Because of the shrinking accessibility to, and thus readership of, the Burlington Free Press, the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, fewer Vermonters across the state have access to statewide legal notices,” Galloway said. 

Statewide legal notices are published in 15 “newspapers of record” across Vermont, according to the secretary of state’s office. In addition to the three Galloway mentioned, they include:

  • Addison County Independent
  • Bennington Banner
  • Brattleboro Reformer
  • Caledonian Record
  • The Chronicle (of Barton)
  • The Islander
  • The Newport Daily Express
  • News & Citizen (of Morrisville)
  • Saint Albans Messenger
  • Valley News
  • Vermont Lawyer
  • The White River Valley Herald

These papers typically put their legal notices up online as well as in print, Donoghue said. 

Yet legal notices are best read in the context of a print newspaper, said Jordan Brechenser, publisher of Vermont News and Media, which operates the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal.

Putting legal notices online means someone has to seek them out, Brechenser said, a prospect he believes is unlikely. 

“I see somebody sitting at their counter — the president of a bank, a concerned citizen,” Brechenser said at a Friday hearing with the Senate Government Operations Committee. “I see them flipping through the paper, and they see the public notices, and they see something that they spit their eggs out over, and they become engaged with it.”

Seven Days, a Burlington-based alt-weekly and one of the state’s largest news outlets, opposes the bill, according to Deputy Publisher Cathy Resmer. 

Printed legal notices help support journalism at the publication, Resmer said, which — unlike VTDigger — is a for-profit business.

Resmer also took issue with the bill’s definition of “electronic news media,” which says the website should publish “information of a public character of interest to Vermont residents, property owners, or the general public.”

Newspapers cover information of interest to Vermonters, Resmer said, but they also follow journalistic standards to make sure that information is accurate. Under the proposed legislation, a website could get the legal notices revenue without following those rules. 

“I wonder if this language could open the door to other entities that are relying on other information that may be of interest but might not be verified,” Resmer said at the Jan. 21 hearing. 

As an example, members of the Senate Government Operations Committee sparred Friday over whether Front Porch Forum — a local site where community members can post messages — would count as a form of “electronic news media” under the proposed law. 

When White brought up the possibility of Front Porch Forum running legal notices, Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, piped in: “That’s not a newspaper.”

“I know it’s not a newspaper,” White responded, “but it is an online news outlet.”

Clarkson made an incredulous facial expression and shook her head. 

“Yes!” White reiterated.

“It’s like a bulletin board at max,” Clarkson replied.

Galloway and Resmer both oppose one section of the bill that only would allow municipal notices to be posted on websites that are “regularly accessed and trafficked” by at least half of the municipality’s residents. 

The only online news outlet in the state that could meet that rule is VTDigger, Galloway said.

But testimony Friday from Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters drew into question whether White’s bill is even necessary to post legal notices with online-only news outlets. 

When asked for his agency’s interpretation of the current law — which specifically uses the terms “newspaper” and “circulation” — Winters said the office believes the statute applies to both print newspapers and outlets that are solely digital. 

“We've said really it should be up to the town to take a look at that and decide whether online or newspaper hardcopy is better for the notice that they're trying to get out,” Winters told the committee. “It's about reaching the greatest number of people possible.”

Committee members are tentatively scheduled to discuss the bill again at a hearing in two weeks.

Disclosure: VTDigger has taken a position in support of legislation that would allow digital-only outlets to publish legal notices. VTDigger personnel involved with its advocacy efforts did not participate in the assigning, reporting or editing of this story. 

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: jlyons@vtdigger.org

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