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HB 1050: Include Online Publications in Definition of Legal Newspaper

Representative Tim Reed (R-7/Brookings) reopens the debate over publishing legal notices online (and joins Novstrup and Perry in Legislative font-fussbudgetry) with House Bill 1050. Reed, the sole listed sponsor, proposes the following changes in how our state and local governments must publish their minutes, financials, and other required notices:

  1. HB 1050 would require that all legal and other official notices be published on the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s public notice website or on a non-paywalled portion of a legal newspaper’s website.
  2. HB 1050 would strike the 10% discount counties, municipalities, and school boards get for publishing their minutes.
  3. HB 1050 would claw back rate-setting authority from the Bureau of Administration and establish in law these rates and widths for publishing legal notices:
    1. Newspapers with circulation >9,000: $6.00 per column inch, minimum width 0.9″.
    2. Newspapers with circulation ≤9,000: $3.15 per column inch, minimum width 1.4″.
  4. HB 1050 ties that publication rate to the school index factor: each fiscal year, the legal notice publication rate would increase by the index factor or by 2%, whichever is less.
  5. HB 1050 would require minimum 9-point font for all legal notice. Currently, 9K-or-less circulation papers must use 8-point font, while the bigger papers may use 6-point font.
  6. HB 1050 limits line spacing to one-half-point leading (surely to stem the plague of unscrupulous publishers padding those notices for easier reading and bigger checks!).
  7. HB 1050 would amend the definition of newspaper to include exclusively electronic regular publications.

It’s good to see that Representative Reed is halfway to the 21st century. However, his effort to shoehorn electronic publications into statute rife with the inky language of print publication shows he needs to clarify his thinking and his legislating.

The current definition of “legal newspaper” dictates that a publication must contain at least four pages per issue, contain at least 120 square inches of printed matter per page, and be distributed at least once a week for at least 50 weeks a year.

So in an exclusively online publication like Dakota Free Press or South Dakota Standard, what constitutes a “page”? Would it be each blog post that has a unique URL? And what constitutes an “issue”? Dakota Free Press sends out a daily email digest at 7 p.m. CST with the headlines of the last 24 hours; are the contents of that daily digest an issue?

How does one determine the square-inchage of an electronic publication? Readers viewing Dakota Free Press on a 27-inch Mac will see far more square inches covered by my daily scribblings than readers checking out those same articles on an iPad or an iPhone. Readers on different devices may not even see the same layout: many electronic publications use one stylesheet to deliver content to large-screen desktop computers and another, simpler style-sheet for mobile devices. (Open this blog on your big computer and on your phone, side by side, and you’ll see what I mean.) Even on the same devices, one reader may view the default layout while another reader with worse eyes may hit Ctrl+Plus a few times to make the font bigger, meaning the same content would cover twice the area for the reader whose bifocals aren’t handy.

And what is “distribution” for an online publication? We online journalists publish the news article by article, as it happens. When is Dakota Free Press or the Aberdeen American News or Politico “distributed”?

As written, HB 1050 seems to expect online publications to produce a PDF newsletter aping the style of print publications, which I find to be one of the most annoying, inconvenient, and redundant forms of online publication. Have you tried to read a PDF on your phone lately? It’s a pain! One of the joys of online publication (and one of the primary features I sought in my template overhaul over the holidays) was to publish the text so it adapts to different devices. The last thing online publications want to do is publish their content in a format that expects an 11″x17″ screen when almost all of their readers will at some point check out their content on handheld screens that fit in their purses or pockets.

All that said, if Representative Reed intends to open the legal notice publication gravy train to blogs like mine, then I say bring HB 1050 on! (That statement right there should guarantee at least major amendment, if not hoghouse or swift deferral to the 41st day in House Local Government.) Add Rep. Reed’s line about “in either or both a printed or electronic format,” and Dakota Free Press arguably meets every line of the definition of “legal newspaper”:

  1. DFP has been publishing for at least a year (this masthead since 2015; my daily public writing since December 2006).
  2. DFP is printed in English.
  3. DFP comes out with 20+ blog posts a week, producing news and commentary and offering advertisers exposure even on legal holidays (like today!).
  4. DFP gathers news, solicits advertising, and conducts general newspaper business at least eight business hours a week (although I don’t know if I can call those hours “normal”… but what is “normal” in the 24-hour news cycle?).

The only hangups in this blog’s qualification as a legal newspaper may be the requirement that DFP have a mailing permit of original entry (show me where to apply and how much to pay!) and that DFP have only one place where it is published at the same time (interesting: when I go on vacation and publish from the Black Hills, or the North Woods, am I publishing from multiple places at the same time or just a single different place for a day or two?).

I won’t get too excited about the prospect of offering local governments a deal on publishing their legal notices (and hey, Buffalo, Springfield, and all points in between, I do reach a statewide audience!). The South Dakota Newspaper Association has nuked every such effort to break their members’ monopoly on this particular public service and allow cash-strapped local governments to use the Web to publish their vital info. HB 1050 will likely face the same fate.

But hey, Legislature: on the off chance you’re ready to innovate, Dakota Free Press stands ready as always to serve.

5 Comments

  1. Jake 2021-01-18

    Here’s hoping, Cory! And when all else is gone, even in South Dakota, there is always HOPE!

  2. Bob Newland 2021-01-18

    Hope is being extinguished as quickly as the Repiglicans can grab hope extinguishers.

  3. Mark Anderson 2021-01-18

    I love Buffalo Springfield too Cory.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-01-18

    Mayor Schaunaman doesn’t think too highly of the Aberdeen American News, as made clear by his refusal to write a weekly column for them and for the public. Maybe he’ll consider designating Dakota Free Press as Aberdeen’s legal newspaper. I could save the city a bunch of money under HB 1050.

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