Florida GOP lawmakers take aim at legal ad revenue in newspapers

A bill that would allow those legal notices from local governments to be published online in government-run websites or for free through the mail passed an early House committee along party lines.
[ Rep. Randy Fine ]
Published Feb. 4, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would deprive newspapers of a key source of revenue came one step closer to becoming law Wednesday.

For decades, Florida law has mandated that policymakers and individuals must post certain public notices — tax increases, special elections, etc. — in print newspapers. In what has become an annual source of debate in the Florida Legislature, a Republican lawmaker wants to change that.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, argued the current law is out of date. Few people read newspapers anymore, he said without citing any figures. So, he continued, it makes little sense why the state forces people to buy legal notices in the pages of print publications. His proposal would allow those notices to be published online in government-run websites or for free through the mail.

The measure is staunchly opposed by the state’s many print publications, most of which are part of larger news organizations that produce online content. Still, those print publications collect millions of dollars per year in the legal notices. So do online publications. First Amendment advocates oppose the measure, arguing it would offload the public notices to places where few access them. Millions of Floridians read print newspapers, they argue.

The debate over the bill in the House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee was held along partisan lines. The bill passed by 11-6 along those same lines.

Fine, a Republican, criticized the news industry for what he said was hypocrisy.

“The same publications who will write front page article after front page article after front page article bemoaning the influence of special interests in the Legislature parade up here arguing for their own unjustifiable special interest,” Fine said. “The arguments that have been used against the bill to some degree point out why the industry is dying: because many of them are so functionally dishonest.”

The Democrats on the committee, such as Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando, argued the bill would hurt an already shrinking local news press corps.

Several publishers, including those of the Tallahassee Democrat and small community publications like Wakulla News and the Gadsden County Times, spoke against the bill. Ron Book, the powerful lobbyist, also spoke on behalf of the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns 22 newspapers in Florida, and the Florida Press Association.

“You won’t put the Miami Herald out of business. You won’t put the Orlando Sentinel out of business. You won’t put the Tampa Bay Times out of business. But you’ll put a lot of the others out of business,” Book said.

An identical measure has passed the Florida House each of the past two years, but those bills died in the Senate.