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Newspaper cutback creates opportunity to help taxpayers

The decision by the New Orleans Times-Picayune to cease daily publication invites a review of the state’s corporate welfare laws benefitting large publishers at taxpayer expense. Unfortunately, that review is likely to track past efforts that put special interests over taxpayers.

The presumed problem stems from R.S. 43:141 et. seq., which mandates certain qualification for newspapers serving as “papers of record,” meaning it prints official government notices. Legislators from the area seemed convinced the law would have to be changed, and quickly, to allow the paper to continue as the paper of record for all things Orleans in the near future.

Actually, under current law initially the change still would allow many units of Orleans government to continue using the paper, because for many jurisdictions the law does not specify any publishing frequency. However, R.S. 43:202 specifically requires judicial notices be published in a daily paper for Orleans. Further, to be eligible for any jurisdiction to award an annual contract, the paper in question must have published “at least weekly” during the previous five years. This means legislators must feel that the Times-Picayune, as some have suspected in the wake of the announcement, plans to cease publication of a print edition sometime in the future, if change is felt to be needed for all instances of government record publishing in Orleans.

Legislators have voiced their preferred option would be to carve out an exception for a non-daily paper in Orleans to qualify. But this only would perpetuate the corporate welfare role that the concept of a physically printed copy of government notices by a private publisher has come increasingly to play.

A couple of times in the past four years, most recently in 2010, bills have been introduced to allow for electronic rather than printing of these records. These were fiercely fought by the newspaper industry with a series of specious, but ultimately successful, arguments about how paper records were more accessible, reliable, etc. It’s time to revive this idea – especially if the Times-Picayune ends up without any printing, which would reveal to all the opportunism behind the past opposition as then press interests would scramble to rewrite the law to favor companies that primarily publish news on the Internet.

Yet why go with half measures, especially when the real reason enough politicians have resisted saving taxpayer dollars by going to cheaper private-sector web dissemination, or just having government do it itself without any payoff to others, is to use this concept as an attempt to reward political supporters in the newspaper business and/or to have some leverage over the newspaper business to induce favorable reporting of their activities? There’s already a bad, dormant bill that would carve out an exception around Orleans that might be hijacked to do the same on behalf of the Times-Picayune, as the session rushes to a close. Instead of pandering to politicians’ and newspapers’ interests, it should be amended to end the physical publishing monopoly, or the requirement to farm out the job at all.

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