For years, local newspaper publishers have generated revenue by publishing legal notices. As the number of print publications rapidly declines, digital-first publishers are starting to step in and fill that void as a place for individuals and municipalities to publish required legal notices.
Publishers can generate substantial revenue from printing legal notices. A few of the types of legal notices that must be published in an open forum include probate, notices to creditors, trustee sales, lien sales, city legal ads, summonses, name changes, and fictitious business names.
Unfortunately, strict local statutes that restrict paid legal notices from being published in online-only publications are limiting digital publishers’ abilities to turn paid legal notices into a revenue stream. Many of the existing public notice statutes and general public notice laws were written before digital news went mainstream, and in some cases the laws were written before the internet was even created.
The death of the print news industry means that some communities have been left with no local newspapers. Many of the local print newspapers that remain have seen significant cuts in circulation over the past decade, which means fewer people are seeing the legal notices that newspapers publish. Although there are some newspapers that have started publishing legal notices online, in addition to print, that practice isn’t common.
Digital-first publishers are pushing for a relaxing of the local statutes that prevent people from publishing legal notices in online-only newspapers. On the opposite side of the fight is the print newspaper industry, which argues that relaxing statutes that require certain notices to be published in print newspapers would be financial disaster for newspapers and lead to the loss of even more news reporting jobs.
In New Jersey alone, publishing legal notices generates $20 million a year for news organizations. Loosening restrictions, so legal notices could be posted in online-only news outlets, wouldn’t eliminate that revenue stream for print publishers, but it would certainly curtail it.
In most states, publishers must file a certificate with a local county clerk before they can start accepting money for publishing legal notices. But not just any publisher is eligible to qualify for one of these certificates. In Wisconsin, for example, non-newspapers are excluded from publishing legal notices. In order to qualify, a newspaper must print news content at “regular intervals,” and its content must be “printed in a publication.”
Legal Notice Advertising — The Publisher’s Perspective
Digital publishers in a number of states have started lobbying for change. Legal notice advertising has the potential to become an enormous revenue stream, so online-only publishers have the incentive to work together to get existing laws changed.
If you operate in a municipality that allows for legal notices to be published online, you should get familiar with your general public notice laws. These laws establish the advertising rates, type size, and other details regulating news organizations publishing legal notices.
(The Public Notice Resource Center maintains a state-by-state guide, which you can review here.)
Also of note, not all organizations are bound by the same state and/or municipality statutes that limit where public notices can be published. For example, some publishers are being contacted by local colleges and school districts that are interested in publishing notices on their websites, even though their publications aren’t recognized under state law.
With a clear understanding of your role, you should be able to create a page for legal notice advertising on your website. Use this page to clearly display the types of legal notices that you publish and how people should submit their notices to you for publication.
Some digital publishers choose to set flat fees for publishing legal notices, while others generate custom quotes based on the type of legal notice and the specifics of the case. If there are a few popular notices that are more common than others—for example, Fictitious Business Names (DBA), Legal Name Changes, and Probate—then you may want to include links those forms (in PDF) for people to fill out and submit via email, mail, or in person.
Is your publication generating revenue by posting legal notices? If so, please reach out and tell us more, so we can share your insights with other digital-first publishers around the country.