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A Startup Found a Lifeline for Newspapers That Isn’t Advertising or Subscriptions

Column helps publications in digitizing government disclosures, which is a vital source of money for them.

The Mercury, a 138-year-old newspaper in Manhattan, Kan., would have gone bankrupt without public notices in 2021. Instead, it made a small profit. With falling circulation and ad sales shifting elsewhere, state-mandated publication of zoning changes, foreclosures, government bidding processes, and the like by newspapers has become critical for the industry. But that lifeline is under threat, and the Mercury is a key player in the effort to keep the company alive.

The paper is experimenting with Column, a tool that allows publications to digitize notices and publish them both online and in print, avoiding political efforts to relocate the disclosures to government websites. Jake Seaton, 27, whose great-great-grandfather bought the Mercury in 1915 and whose father, Ned Seaton, is now publisher, created the company.

Seaton delivered the paper as a kid, when circulation was more than double what it is now, and witnessed Craigslist take over the classified ad sector. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to the company’s public notices, and he spent a long time thinking about “how can I bring my family’s business into the next generation?”

According to a 2010 analysis from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, the column is one of a few industry efforts to retain public notices, which provide several hundred million dollars in annual revenue for U.S. newspapers. The Illinois Press Association has a similar service that assists newspapers in other states in providing central websites for public notifications. Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says, “for many newspapers, it’s the difference between being profitable and having to close.”

Many states still need printed public announcements. Several states are moving to allow them to be published on newspaper websites, but others are attempting to eliminate newspapers totally.

The Florida Senate passed a bill in March that will allow local governments to post notices on the websites of Florida’s 67 county governments, which will go into effect next year.

Some politicians and local organizations argue that posting public notices on county court websites would be less expensive. However, news organizations worry that this could result in fewer people seeing the content. According to a study by the North Carolina Press Association, the leading daily newspaper in Guilford County, N.C., which is home to a contentious public-notices debate, had 564,423 monthly unique visits.

62,954 people visited the county website.

And the groups argue that politicians who don’t like what newspapers publish about them are abusing public notice laws by attempting to decrease revenue in order to harm or shut down the publication. Consider former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who championed a bill in 2016 that would have allowed public notifications to be moved online, citing the “archaic” and “expensive” requirement to print them.

He was under fire from the media at the time for his role in “Bridgegate,” an alleged traffic-congestion conspiracy to punish a legislator who didn’t support his reelection bid. He tweeted that “billionaire newspaper owners” were “just another special interest feeding at the government trough” after the plan failed.

According to Seaton, posting them on newspaper websites will allow journalists to scan the material and identify government waste and misconduct. His company also offers tracking, proof of publishing, and other public notice-related services. The Washington Post and the McClatchy Group are among the clients who have signed up for Column, which has received an undisclosed amount from a few angel investors.

We have a very clear path to profitability with our partners,” Seaton says, and “an opportunity to build something really big here.

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