Many years ago, I looked into starting my own newspaper, but I found that I couldn't compete with established papers (and usually their large companies) because my startup would not qualify for legal ads for about the first year.
Now, the state legislature is looking at taking those legal ads — what some in the news industry call the "bread and butter" of advertising revenue — away from all newspapers.
House Bill 1488 was introduced Tuesday and is in a committee. The bill would strip the requirement that governments run legal notices in the newspapers and create an internet calendar where notices are run for free. That's the equivalent of what Craigslist did to personal ads for newspapers and could mean the loss of thousands and thousands of dollars for Arkansas newspapers.
In contrast, should the bill pass, city, county and state governments stand to save, proponents say. Poynter has pointed out a mid-sized city could save $20,000 by not having to pay for the ads.
But at what cost to the community and community newspapers? Do we as a community care that revenue will be taken away from newspapers?
On one side, newspapers are typically businesses, not nonprofits. The current law could be seen as favoring one industry — and individually, the age of businesses in that industry — over others. On the other side, newspapers are a community service and the industry is struggling financially. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette laid off several reporters and photographers just last year. Taking away more revenue now could cripple community service newspapers traditionally provide.
Other states have looked at or are doing the same thing as Arkansas. This year, Arizona and Texas are looking at similar proposals to move legal ads online. Arkansas is just the most recent state to join a growing number of states looking to save money by cutting newspapers.
But if these proposals pass, will the Fourth Estate crumble? What, if anything, will happen to the checks and balances newspapers provide in Arkansas?