Gov. Chris Christie’s dream of joining the Trump administration and leaving his New Jersey troubles behind ended because newspapers held him accountable for Bridgegate, botched pension reform and a host of other administration shortcomings.
Now he wants revenge, trying to rush a surprise plan to politicize newspaper legal advertising through the Legislature in the last days of 2016. He’s buying support for it from some Democratic leaders by promising to sign a big increase in funding for each legislator’s district office.
The plan would end the requirement that local governments publish their legal notices in newspapers of record and allow officials to do so only when they approve of how newspapers have covered them. Newspapers might lose a small amount of revenue, but the public would get less accountability of its public officials and lose the government transparency of legal notices published in a single, easily accessed place.
State law requires governments to notify the public of many important matters that affect people. In this region lately, foreclosures and sheriff’s sales have dominated such legal disclosures in newspapers, but there are also announcements of new laws, public hearings, government contracts and much more.
Christie and some legislators want to let government entities instead put such announcements on an internet site of their own creation. The notices would appear on hundreds of websites across the state, indexed somewhere on the state government’s unwieldy website.
A similar push was attempted and stalled in early 2012, and without this year’s plum for Christie — changing state law to allow him to profit from a book contract while still in office.
The current requirement that all legal notices be treated the same is crucial to ensuring their publication isn’t politicized. This year’s bill would allow local governments to reward or punish the official newspaper depending on an administration’s perceived satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with how the newspaper’s newsroom “treats” the current government. Legally required public notification is no place for “carrot or the stick” shenanigans.
Worse still, internet-only publication would effectively take these notices out of the hands of many senior citizens, low-income residents and people with less formal education.
In September, the Pew Research Center reported that the familiar focus on “digital divides” in internet access misses something more important: The ability to use the technology “varies by people’s socioeconomic status, their race and ethnicity.”
Pew’s survey a year ago classified 14 percent of adults as “the Unprepared,” using less technology, needing help with it and unsure they can trust what they find online. Another 5 percent are “Traditional Learners” who have the technology but aren’t likely to use it or trust it. And 33 percent are “the Reluctant,” with more digital skills but relatively low use of the internet for learning. In all, Pew classifies half of adults as “relatively hesitant” to use the internet for key activities.
Legal notices in newspapers are easily and equally accessible to all groups of people. They are advertisements, but they’re responsible for a tiny fraction of newspaper revenue, placed typically at the lowest advertising rate and one set by state government (and, in fact, not increased in this state since 1983).
For that small cost, newspaper legal notices deliver the largest, broadest public readership of any single placement. And here’s a bonus: Since 2003, the newspapers have uploaded their notices to www.NJPublicNotices.com, the digital statewide repository of public notices hosted by the New Jersey Press Association. The searchable site is provided by the newspapers as a public service at no charge to the public nor to governments.
Every legislator who believes in accountability to the public and open government should oppose Christie’s plan for revenge on newspapers. Similar proposals in the past have been rejected by nearly all area legislators. Not one other state in the U.S. has yet adopted such a proposal. Nine have recently modernized their public notice laws for the digital age. All still require the printed notice.
State Sen. Jim Whelan in 2012 said there must be consistency in legal advertising: “The ability of towns to flip-flop, to one time use paper and one time go online, is very disconcerting to me.” He reportedly is a sponsor of this year’s proposal, but we hope he is merely advancing it to full Senate consideration where his vote against it will help ensure its defeat, as fellow Sen. Jeff Van Drew did with the 2012 bill.
If more funding for legislative offices is needed, fine. Make a case for it and get it in a legitimate way, not by reducing the public’s awareness of local government actions and the ability of newspapers to provide the oversight of officials the public demands.