Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

By Dan Kennedy

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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