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California Assembly Bill 642 and newspapers of general circulation

Early Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in Goodwin’s Organic Foods & Drinks in Riverside, California, sipping on a carrot apple juice. However, I wasn’t planning a sit-in to protest genetically modified snail darters. Instead, I was reading a newspaper.

Now perhaps I need to explain that term to younger readers. You see, a “newspaper” is just like it sounds – a collection of news stories printed on paper. It’s kind of like having an AOL publication such as the Huffington Post, but instead of looking at it on a computer as normal people do, you actually hold pieces of paper – sometimes very large pieces of paper – in your hand to read the news. In fact, some major news web sites, including famous websites such as the New York Times, actually started out as newspapers!

(Someday I’ll post the story of my years as a “paper boy.”)

Oh, and because it prints on paper, the newspaper copy that you have may not have the latest news. In fact, I was looking at a newspaper from Friday, the day before – which is probably why it was left lying around.

So what was in Friday’s paper – in this case, the local Riverside Press-Enterprise? Well, I saw a few stock quotes from Thursday – not a lot of them. And I saw an account of the Heat-Pacers basketball game from Thursday night. And I also saw an ad, placed by the paper itself, regarding California Assembly Bill AB 642.

If you haven’t heard of AB 642, it is a legislative attempt to change the definition of a “newspaper of general circulation.” Why is this definition so important? Because in California, as in many other jurisdictions, a newspaper of general circulation is the only type of newspaper that is authorized to publish official notices – fictitious business name statements, petitions to change names, notices of auctions of unclaimed property, and the like. So if you happen to be a newspaper of general circulation, you can run these ads – and charge money for them, which provides a nice revenue stream.

But what if the definition of “newspaper of general circulation” changes? Well, that’s what AB 642 proposes to do. Here’s part of the legislative counsel’s summary of the bill:

AB 642, as introduced, Rendon. Publication: newspaper of general circulation: Internet Web site.

Existing law requires that various types of notices are provided in a newspaper of general circulation. Existing law requires a newspaper of general circulation to meet certain criteria, including, among others, that it be published and have a substantial distribution to paid subscribers in the city, district, or judicial district in which it is seeking adjudication.

This bill would provide that a newspaper that is available on an Internet Web site may also qualify as a newspaper of general circulation, provided that newspaper meets certain criteria.

Now this bill, if passed, means that current newspapers of general circulation, such as the Riverside Press-Enterprise, would have to compete with Internet-only publications, such as the Lake Elsinore-Wildomar Patch, an online-only news source in the Press-Enterprise’s territory.

As I mentioned, the newspaper that I was reading had some comments about AB 642. You can guess how the Press-Enterprise feels about it.

Although I couldn’t find the Press-Enterprise’s ad online, I did find similar sentiments from another newspaper publisher, Brian Hews. In a March 15 piece entitled AOL, Patch Declare War on Newspapers in California, writer Randy Economy quotes from Hews:

“AB 642 requires no brick-and-mortar presence, no business office, and therefore, likely no local publisher, editors, reporters, local ad staff, production and circulation staff. A single regional editor aggregating content from the worldwide web and rewriting news credited at great expense by real newspapers would qualify,” Hews said….

“AB 642 would allow the adjudication of a petri dish,” Hews said. “This will kill some great local newspapers.”…

“Internet-only publications, especially The Patch are undependable, have no permanency, are subject to constant change and susceptible to technology failure. Internet connections fall, server’s crash, links die and websites are hacked all the time,” Hews said.

But not everyone is worried about the crashing of “server’s.” To some, the anti-competitive stance of the current newspapers of general circulation is the last gasp of a dying industry. In a letter to the editor of the Press-Enterprise, Dana Sutton was unimpressed with the Press-Enterprise’s arguments:

In response to your large advertisement March 27 that urged opposition to AB 642, I urge California legislators to support the bill….

What we have is a yelp of pain coming from a moribund industry. Spokesmen for the whale oil industry no doubt issued similar howls when electricity came along. But, of course, technological progress always creates losers as well as winners. The Legislature has no business protecting such victims from the natural and inevitable consequences of obsolescence.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I found all of these quotes on the Internet. But on the other hand, Sutton took the time to pen (I mean type) a missive to this generation’s whale oil salesmen.

This whole episode, including the behind-the-scenes jockeying by competing business interests, is merely another illustration that technology itself is easy to change. Heck, technology would permit THIS blog to publish official notices – something that would strike fear in the hearts of the Press-Enterprise and AOL alike. It’s the business rules that are tough to alter.

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