Assembly Bill 731 addresses public notices and free distribution newspapers

A Letter from WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett

What Does AB 731 Do?

Beth Bennett

For more than 200 years, Wisconsin’s newspapers have helped ensure that the state’s citizens are well informed through public notices. These notices serve as a critically important independent reporter between units of government and the taxpayers, as well as serving as the official notification vehicle for the court system.

Newspaper publication of public notices provides the necessary verification, certification and archiving that ensures that individuals’/taxpayers’ rights are protected and preserved. While public notice publication in newspapers has been a constant and reliable third-party check on governmental actors for generations, Wisconsin’s publishers have worked to continually adapt public notice requirements to ensure the broadest dissemination of public information.

To that end, in 2005, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association began digitally archiving all public notices published in Wisconsin, making them publicly available online at WisconsinPublicNotices.org. This online clearinghouse of notices from across the state serves as a one-stop shop for notice seekers and can be searched a number of ways. And, the online posting is at no additional cost to the governmental and private entities required to publish public notices.

In the newspaper industry’s continued effort to expand the reach of public notices, while ensuring the all-important third-party verification, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is supporting the passage of AB 731.

With the assistance of the WNA, AB 731 has been drafted in such a way as to preserve the public notice publication rights of newspapers with paid circulation.

AB 731 would change the existing public notice statute to allow free distribution newspapers to publish public notices if there is no paid circulation newspaper in the municipality. Additionally, the free distribution newspaper must meet all of the frequency, editorial content and distribution criteria currently required by law of a paid circulation newspaper.

The bill also makes some much needed technical updates to the definition of a newspaper, including ensuring the continuity of legal status for publications in the case of mergers and sales; and putting a news content requirement in statute.

What is the problem we are trying to address and why do we need this change?

The problem that we are facing as an industry is that in some parts of the State of Wisconsin, there are no longer paid circulation newspapers eligible to publish government notices. In Wisconsin, there are 17 counties that have only one newspaper with paid circulation eligible to publish public notices. In many cases, the paid newspaper circulation does not reach all of the citizens of the county. In one county in Wisconsin, there is no paid circulation newspaper.

Local officials from these areas are approaching the Legislature on a regular basis arguing that because there is no newspaper, they should be allowed to publish on their government websites instead.

It is for this reason that WNA sees the addition of “qualified” free newspapers where there are no paid newspapers as being supportive of the association’s effort to keep public notices in newspapers.

The proposal, if passed, will bolster the newspaper industry’s readership/circulation in the state. The WNA consistently relies on strong readership/circulation numbers when arguing for the continued publication of public notices in newspapers. The WNA believes that this measure will also strengthen the presence of the newspaper industry statewide, providing more publisher contacts for our legislative efforts and more publications statewide for the industry overall.

Once again, this measure only impacts those areas where there is no paid newspaper eligible to publish public notices.

The WNA board reviewed this bill and voted not to oppose it.

The WNA Board of Directors provided input on the proposed changes found in AB 731. The board vote to not oppose the bill was due in part to the multiple attacks during the 2017 legislative session to eliminate the publication of public notices in newspapers.

The board believes that the proactive measures found in AB 731 demonstrate a commitment on the part of the newspaper industry to ensure the greatest possible circulation of public information throughout the State of Wisconsin.

The WNA would like to thank the bill sponsor, Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) for allowing the association to provide input on the measure.

I urge any WNA member that would like to discuss the specifics of the changes contained AB 731 to contact me at 608-283-7621 or at beth.bennett@wnanews.com

Sincerely,

Beth Bennett
WNA Executive Director