Every so often, someone in the West Virginia Legislature gets the idea that state and local government should stop running legal advertising in newspapers.
It’s no different this year. House Bill 4025 would have the state auditor’s office set up a statewide central website for legal ads. Entities that use the statewide website would have the option to run the print version of the legal ad only one time.
Why make the change? Partly because of money, proponents of the bill say. In December, legislative auditors reported that state and local government entities spent about $4.6 million on legal ads in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Sure, newspapers make money on legal advertising, and some smaller newspapers could face closure if that income dried up or was reduced greatly — a development that could cost the state jobs. Legal advertising is a reliable source of income in a time when other ad revenues are diminishing.
But counties make money on legal ads, too.
At a meeting of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee meeting recently, Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said most counties more than make up the costs of legal ads with publication fees they assess to the subjects of those ads.
For delinquent property tax notices, for instance, counties assess a $25 publication fee at the time the property owner pays the back taxes or when the property is sold at public auction.
“Almost every county generates substantial revenue from the publication fees over the costs of the legal ads,” Smith said, according to an article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Smith said he sent Freedom of Information requests to all 55 counties, and the initial responses show significant income from publication fees.
For example, Boone County reported that it paid $4,923 for legal ads during the 2018-19 budget year, but collected a total of $69,725 in publication fees. That works out to more than $14 received for every $1 spent on legal ads. Mercer County’s return on legal advertising was 9-to-1.
Talk about the profit motive. What private enterprise would turn down a return on investment of 14-to-1?
There are also ideological considerations, which Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, lead sponsor of the bill and a longtime critic of legal ads, has acknowledged. In December. Steele said newspapers such as the Register-Herald of Beckley use the ad revenue to “attack politicians they disagree with and support politicians that push a liberal agenda …” That suggests a political agenda by some lawmakers who back this bill.
Let’s step outside the Capitol and the county courthouse for a few minutes. Internet-based legal ads may sound good there, but what about the average resident?
Placing legal ads on a website works if the ads are easy to find and are available for a long period of time.
It also works if everyone in the state has access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet service. And there’s the rub; many parts of the state have no reliable internet service. Online legal ads buried in a user-unfriendly website would be a great place to hide important information.
No matter how newspapers and legislators go back and forth about legal ads in newspapers, the fact is that legal ads work for the people. It’s a filter-free way to inform the public about delinquent taxes, plans to build roads, sample ballots and many other important items of public interest.
The question of how best to inform the public should be the guiding principle here, not money or ideology.