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Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Free At Last: Inside the Legals Victory in Ohio

In Competition, Legal Advertising, Uncategorized on August 3, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Years of persistence — what some have called blind optimism and others, insanity — paid off when Ohio Governor John Kasich signed the biennial Budget into law on June 30, 2011. Contained in the 3,264 page document were 420 pages of provisions that bring the legal advertising process into the 21st Century. It is a model of comprehensive compromise in both policy and politics, so much so that the key stakeholders locked in perennial antagonism all declared victory at the end of the day.

Local Government cheered the very real cost savings on otherwise unfunded mandates. The pay-to-read press heralded the preservation of legal advertising in print, which was not entirely a given this time around — and their enthusiasm spilled into an historical whitewash of relentless opposition great and small.

And for the free community paper industry: We’re finally legal in Ohio.

All of which is best for the people — as better informed citizens and as taxpayers footing the bill. But this legislated outcome didn’t happen by itself. It didn’t happen overnight or with a Hail Mary as time ran out. Nor because any major stakeholder suddenly abandoned self-interst for altruism. Columbus Messenger publisher, Phil Daubel, began his personal crusade over twenty years ago with some very near misses along the way. Guess which influential lobby always managed to pull the plug?

From our rise as an industry generations ago, free community papers have fought for the right to publish legal advertising. For at least the last decade and a half, measures have been introduced across state legislatures that would take that public notice out of print and place it all online. During this latter span of time, both alternatives to subscription newspapers made advances at the margins of select types of official notice. But neither vision became the model of wholesale reform of any state’s legal advertising regime since our industry’s victory in Minnesota last century.

What I call the Buckeye Compromise embraces both the realities of the digital age — and the time-tested power of papers without paywalls. Progress was methodically paved over the last half-decade through the legal establishment of a Task Force charged with making change, constructively engaging that commission, having hands in the direct process turning an eight page report into nearly five hundred pages of legislative sausage, and advocating the ultimate provisions as bills and amendments. That is the essence of the long, slow process where all parties were held to their bottom-line gives and takes. Which is not to say that even the agreed-to framework wasn’t subject to backpedalling and covert obstruction.

The publicly endorsed nuts and bolts — legalizing free community papers with audited circulations, capping rates at lowest earned commercial, allowing for internet posting in lieu of second paper for same notice and for summarized descriptions on second consecutive print publication — cemented the fallback position, a mousetrap of sorts. Our peers with the monopoly, and the license to print money, still hoped to stall any movement. While our friends — and soon to be advertisers — would have much preferred doing away with print altogether. That was basically Governor Kasich’s original proposal, and that worst-case scenario feeling quite real drove home, finally, the wisdom of expanding print to save it.

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of prominent free community paper veterans that have told me these last few years that our Legals ambitions were doomed to the internet. But I, along with enough equally stubborn folks, continued to believe that we could finally achieve reform because of the internet. Ohio can and should become the first state domino in this still-new century. To do so we must leverage the larger fear of the incumbent monopoly — total migration to the internet — and continue working with Local Government to quantify the very real savings we will bring. This won’t change the underlying competing ambitions — to stall just one more legislative session and otherwise to push web-only or bust — but having our fallback option on the table at the beginning increases the odds should process approach endgame. As we now see in Ohio, not only can this be done but all sides can even feel like they won when the dust finally settles.

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