N.J. Bill Would Put Legal Notices Online

State legislators in New Jersey have drafted a bill proposing posting government notices on county and municipal Web sites rather than in newspapers. The bill, which was passed by state’s Assembly, is awaiting Senate approval. The decline of newspaper readership was suggested as reason for pulling legal notices from papers.

 

N.J. Bill Would Put Legal Notices Online, Not in Print

By Jennifer Saba
Editor & Publisher

NEW YORK, New York (June 28, 2004) — State legislators in New Jersey have drafted a bill that proposes the government should post legal notices on county and municipal Web sites rather than in newspapers. The bill, which was introduced on June 3 and passed by the Assembly on June 17, is awaiting Senate approval.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, who is spearheading the bill, pointed to the decline of newspaper readership as one reason to pull legal notices from papers. “The distribution could be wider on the Internet,” he told E&P today.

Cryan cites a 2001 study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University that found that seven out of 10 households in New Jersey own a computer. “And it’s reasonable [to estimate] that number has gone up,” he said, adding that most people have access to the Internet and that it’s more reliable than newspapers.

Also at the heart of the matter is roughly $6-$8 million a year that the state would save by not publishing legal notices in print newspapers.

Shifting the publication of legal notices to state Web sites is a movement that has gained popularity over the last couple of years especially as budget constraints force states to look for places to cut spending, said Rishi Hingoraney, executive director of Public Notice Resource Center, a non-profit dedicated to preserving public notices. But for the most part legislation around this issue usually sputters out. “Newspapers serve as a historical record … when it’s on the Internet, a touch of a button can wipe out data and there’s no way of going back,” Hingoraney said.

Hingoraney said that a few other states have passed variations on the legislation introduced in New Jersey. In 2003, Virginia passed a law that permitted notices of special elections to run on government Web sites in lieu of newspapers. The same year, Utah passed a bill that required only a synopsis of water use applications to be published in newspapers while the full report could be accessed on government sites.

New Jersey has 566 municipalities within 21 counties. Cryan does not know how many municipalities currently have Web sites but he did say that all 21 counties do. Cryan said that shifting the legal notices to the government Web sites costs nothing: “It’s a common sense bill.”

The New Jersey Press Association thinks otherwise. “We’re extremely unhappy with it,” said John O’Brien, executive director, NJPA. “They claim they’re trying to save money and that newspaper readership is down but they’re going to have to re-create the wheel. Plenty of municipalities don’t have Web sites.”

And the NJPA already created a searchable Web site that amasses most legal notices that run in papers. Cryan said that he found out about the NJPA’s site after the bill was introduced to the Assembly.

Currently in New Jersey, all public legal notices must be published in newspapers and the state sets the price. There hasn’t been a price hike since 1983. The rate is based on circulation, but O’Brien said that on average, larger papers receive about $14 per inch for space they would charge other advertisers $70 to $100 per inch. “Newspapers are already supplementing public notices,” O’Brien said.