TRENTON, N.J. — As classified advertising, once the lifeblood of newspapers, has dried up, one constant has remained: a thick daily listing of government public notices. But legislative fights have put that at risk.
A measure to allow government agencies in New Jersey to no longer publish their legal notices in newspapers recently stalled, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie said he will make the change a priority in 2017. And Democratic leaders in the Legislature aren't backing down from having the debate, either.
Christie says the change would save taxpayers and residents $80 million, but the state's newspapers dispute that math. They say that the state spends $20 million on legal notice advertising each year and that more than half is reimbursed by private business. Christie's figures also apparently include an estimate that $60 million will be spent on public notices of pending foreclosures, a fee paid for by banks.
It's not only an issue in New Jersey. State lawmakers nationwide have considered ending the requirement to publish notices for things like public meetings and government bids, but lobbying efforts from publishers have stopped that so far. But as the audience for printed newspapers continues to dwindle, some think it's only a matter of time.
"I think with the state legislatures it's just simply a matter of saving a few bucks," said Kip Cassino, a media analyst at Borrell Associates. "It's going to keep coming up and I think before the next decade ends, I don't think you're going to see the legals in newspapers anymore."
If this month's fight in New Jersey is any indication, though, that change won't come easily.
Faced with legislation put on a fast track in Trenton, the state's newspapers launched a full-court press against the measure. Most of the newspapers owned by Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper chain, devoted their front pages to an editorial against the measure.
Christie called out the "billionaire" owners of the newspapers, saying that they made the attack personal against him so that they could continue "feeding like pigs at the government trough."
Classified advertising was formerly the lifeblood of newspapers before Craigslist launched and took a huge chunk from that profitable revenue stream.
Lawmakers in states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Alaska have debated doing away with public notices, but those measures have stalled or not passed. Arizona's Legislature this year approved a bill allowing corporations to file their legal notices with a state regulator, but public agencies still have to publish them in newspapers.
In Massachusetts, a new law goes into effect Jan. 21, developed as a compromise to discussions about allowing government agencies to bypass newspapers, that will require newspapers to publish legal notices online as well as in print. The state's newspapers will also be required to run a statewide website to collect all of the notices. That already happens in New Jersey, although it's unclear whether that would continue if the measure supported by Christie passes.
"You don't want to put the fox in charge of the hen house," said Robert Ambrogi, of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. "The main reason legal notices are published is to ensure government transparency and government accountability. In order to have that process done in a neutral and objective way, it needs to be managed and overseen by a third party."