Various local newspapers appear outside a convenience store in the Brooklyn borough of New York on June 30, 2022. The United States continues to see newspapers die at the rate of two per week, according to a report issued Wednesday on the state of local news. The country had 6,377 newspapers at the end of May, down from 8,891 in 2005, the report said. Credit: Mark Kennedy / AP

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It is fun to watch hyperbole run amok.

Last week, another commentator in the Bangor Daily News – a newspaper sales director – opined on LD 422, a bill currently awaiting action in Augusta. It would remove the requirement for municipalities to publish notices in a physical newspaper in favor of a wholly online town website process.

The columnist decried “uber-conservative initiatives” threatening to turn the United States into a real-life version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with nothing less than the future of democracy at stake. Fortunately, we are aware of these imminent horrors because … towns pay newspapers to physically publish legal notices on newsprint?

It seems a little silly.

The bill in question was supported by titans of Maine’s vast right-wing conspiracy, such as the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Rural Water Association, and the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association.  

OK, not exactly an “uber-conservative” lineup.

LD 422 is remarkably similar to a bill that was introduced in the 125th Maine Legislature by then-Assistant Democratic Leader Terry Hayes. The same Terry Hayes who later became an independent candidate for governor and then state treasurer.    

So what is more likely? Are advocacy organizations for Maine’s municipalities as well as a leading Democrat-turned-independent complicit in an attempt to turn the world into some dystopian nightmare? Or is there a legitimate debate on how notices should be publicized?

Nearly everything in the world has tradeoffs. And, when it comes to policy making, they are often measured in dollars.  

Opponents of LD 422 eloquently spoke about the vital role print newspapers play in informing the community about legal notices. Of course, it would be even more informative to require a written letter be delivered to every mailbox in an affected area. Why don’t we do that instead?

An answer? It would be cost prohibitive. A different balance was struck.

The unstated part of the opposition to LD 422 is financial, which makes some of the passion in opposition to the bill understandable. Right now, under penalty of law, people are required to use newspapers’ services. They do not print these notices for free. A rational economic actor knows they benefit from their legally privileged position in the Maine statutes.

Print media is also facing a massive financial crisis, so terminating a revenue stream enshrined in law is a scary proposition. Hence, entirely rational opposition ensues.

But legislators need to determine how much the incremental additional notice provided by publishing legal advertisements in print newspapers is worth. $10? $10,000? $10 million?  

There is a tipping point where the extra cost is simply not worth it. The exact location of that line is probably different for everyone. And it is a different question from whether or not local news is worth paying for. I encourage everyone to find a paper they like and to subscribe. But the two issues are different and should not be conflated.

In fairness, there was one other major argument made in opposition to LD 422. It came by a “fox in the henhouse” analogy. If municipalities (or any government agency) were responsible for posting their own notices, how could we ensure they would follow the rules?

It is a great point. Back in 2011, the Maine Association of Broadcasters offered a solution: Have Augusta issue an RFP for a single, state-wide, independent online notice provider. Place every legal notice in Maine on this site, and build in strong search tools and automated mailing lists. Require that the winning contractor include a publicity plan. Put it out to bid periodically.  

Would such an approach be less accessible for some? Yes. Would it be more accessible for others? Almost certainly. It would represent a different set of tradeoffs, with a different set of costs, instead of simply writing newspapers into the law books.  

Yet even if we strike a different balance, I am positive it would not be an “uber-conservative initiative” sounding the death-knell of democracy enroute to a real-life Gilead.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.