Just days before the New Jersey state legislature adjourned for the holiday recess, lawmakers quietly slipped a relatively innocuous-sounding bill through committee. The measure, which was strongly favored by Governor Chris Christie, would have repealed a state law requiring municipal governments to publish legal notices in local newspapers, allowing them to post such notices online instead.
The move was widely criticized as a crackdown on the press, since local newspapers receive a substantial portion of their revenue from the legal advertising the bill affects. It also raised eyebrows among proponents of good governance, who feared that the bill would enable municipalities to blackmail local papers by threatening to pull legal ads if local officials received unfavorable coverage.
The New Jersey Press Association criticizing the measure strongly and dubbing it “Chris Christie’s Revenge Bill” because of the longstanding perception that the Governor viewed the media as biased against him.
After a reportedly heated closed-door discussion among members of the Assembly Democratic caucus, the bill was quickly shelved before the session ended. Only days before, the bill had bipartisan support and counted the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly among its co-sponsors.
However, last week, Governor Christie signaled that he is still interested in reviving the measure. In a letter to lawmakers, the Governor revealed that his office was conducting another review of legal ad placements by municipalities and will be releasing new figures shortly.
While much of the focus on legal ad notices has been directed towards the State’s major dailies, dozens of local papers around the state would also have been affected by the bill. Steve Parker, co-publisher of the New Jersey Hills Media group which owns the Mount Olive Chronicle and other local papers, describes how, if passed, the bill could hit smaller newspapers like his particularly hard.
“It could have a detrimental effect on our ability to continue covering some of the smaller municipalities that we serve,” Parker said. “Daily newspapers have been forced to cut back coverage on a lot of small towns. So where ten years ago there might have been three reporters covering Mount Olive’s Town Council or Mount Olive’s Board of Ed, now there’s one – if they’re lucky.”
Newsrooms large and small across New Jersey have sustained major cutbacks in recent years. The Record, New Jersey’s most widely circulated newspaper, announced in July that it would lay off almost 400 people after being acquired by the Gannett company. Others, like the Star Ledger have seen their newsrooms cut in half since 2008.
Billionaire newspaper owners unmasked themselves as just another special interest feeding at the Gov’t trough. $80m subsidy for billionaires
— Governor Christie (@GovChristie) December 20, 2016
The Christie administration argues that the law requiring municipalities to pay local papers to post legal notices amounts to a public subsidy for the newspaper industry. An official statement released by the Governor’s office claimed that the requirement cost municipalities $80 million a year. However, the NJPA says that figure is actually closer to $20 million. When an editor from Star Ledger asked the Governor’s office to provide a justification for the $80 million figure, he was refused and told only that the figure came from a survey of “multiple state agencies”. Neither the survey nor its methodology was made publicly available.
The dispute over costs aside, opponents of the bill also argue that municipalities wouldn’t save any money by putting their legal advertisements online once the technical and administrative costs are accounted for. An analysis by the state Office of Legislative Services projects that the bill would have an “indeterminate fiscal impact” on local governments. The rate newspapers charge for public legal notices hasn’t increased since 1983 and is unlikely to change in the future.
Governor Christie, who first took office in 2009, has long had a complicated relationship with the press. In a recent press conference, the Governor scolded the media for “breathlessly reporting” on the controversial “Bridgegate” scandal, which dragged on for years and likely contributed to his low poll numbers.
The Governor’s most recent approval rating stood at just 17 percent according to a Quinnipiac University poll from January 31st.
— tom moran (@tomamoran) December 15, 2016
Yet, the real fear is the effect that dropping the legal ad requirement could have on government transparency. George White, the executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, told NJ.com that the bill “destroys core principles of government transparency and openness.” If local governments have the option to deprive local papers of their revenue, White fears, then officials could extort them for more favorable coverage.
Still others, like Parker, who’s been covering local politics for years, fear that smaller papers like his are going to get caught in the crossfire of a larger dispute between an unpopular Governor and a press corps who he believes is unreasonably unfair to him.
“It’s a vendetta against the major daily papers,” said Parker, adding: “we are the unwitting victims. Our relationship with the smaller municipalities is very good. Ninety-eight percent of the municipalities are staffed by volunteers and do excellent work. They depend on us to get the news out to residents.”