Newspapers aren’t free for a reason


By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

There’s a reason why the Indiana legislature has since at least 1879 used newspapers to give citizens notice of actions that state and local government are taking or contemplating. Newspapers deliver the message directly to Hoosiers.

H.B. 1033, which was passed by the Indiana House, takes the view that free-circulation publications are equal to newspapers. We need to explain the difference to derail H.B. 1033. For many legislators, a newspaper and free publication look and feel the same, but we know it’s not as simple as that.

Because newspapers have a paid circulation, they are welcomed into homes and businesses and read. Statistically, the average newspaper is read by at least two people.

Free publications are dropped off in the mailbox, where they may be read or immediately tossed into the recycling bin. With newspapers you know how many people are reading. Not so with free publications.

With newspaper subscribers versus homes where free products are mailed, there’s a greater chance that Hoosiers will see and read public notices, which is the intent of public notice advertising.

Not all newspaper readers will read the public notices, but an American Opinion Research survey showed 33 percent do.

Because Hoosiers are paying for their newspaper, the newspaper must give them content that they want and need. This leads newspapers to hire reporting staff to cover local government, schools, etc., to provide content that will create subscribers. Newspapers sell advertising based on this readership.

Free publications sell advertisers based on the number of homes receiving the mailing. No different than a Valpak envelope of coupons. There is no incentive to create a reporting staff because it doesn’t change the number of homes receiving the mailing.

In fact, the system discourages the hiring of staff because printing costs are higher with a saturation model than a subscription model, and there is no revenue to offset those costs, such as subscription and single-copy sales revenue.

This tends to push content toward all the news that might walk through the publication’s front door, not reporting on government actions and other community news by a dedicated journalist.

Newspapers operate under a periodicals mail permit. This requires the postal service to treat mailed copies of a newspaper like first-class mail, with a priority on timely delivery.

Free publications operate under a standard mail permit, which has a lower delivery priority.

When mail volume is high, post offices can and do set aside standard mail to focus on first-class and periodicals mail.

With public notices, this delay can frustrate the intent of public notices to give the public advance notice about meetings they might want to attend.

Because newspapers cover the community, they are prone to irritate public officials because reporters ask questions about decisions made.

Not so much with free publications that don’t have the staff to cover local government.

With equal status as carriers of public notice advertising, it won’t be hard to surmise the choice irritated public officials will make in placing public notices – the benign, vanilla-news free publication or the questioning newspaper.

Unfortunately, with the lack of retail advertisers in many small towns, the choice by local government to place public notices in the unquestioning, free publications will sound the death knell for too many small-town newspapers.

Is a General Assembly action that will financially benefit a publication model that doesn’t encourage watch-dog checks-and-balances a good public policy? The answer is no.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.