Florida Compromise Installs FPA As The State’s ‘Gateway To Public Notices’

All eyes in the newspaper industry have been on Florida in 2021 because of another round of high-stakes challenges to public notice laws.

Where trendsetter Florida goes, other states could follow.

Press associations throughout the U.S. and their members read with intense interest the recent news about a Florida resolution worked out by both sides in the drama. “New Florida Public Notice Law First To Authorize Internet-Only Notices” was the headline on the summary by the Public Notice Resource Center, whose monthly newsletter is a must-read.

The resource center noted the “outsized role” the Florida Press Association will play in the administration of the new statute, calling it “the most significant piece of public notice legislation in modern history.”

“It requires FPA to ‘ensure that minority populations throughout the state have equitable access’ to notices posted on the statewide site and to publish quarterly reports identifying the newspapers that post notices on the site and their legal basis for doing so,” the center reported in its May update. “The press group is also required to report the number of unique visitors to the statewide website, as well as the total number of notices published in print newspapers or exclusively online on newspaper websites.”

Interesting.

The Relevance Project asked Florida Press Association Executive Director Jim Fogler for his assessment and he kindly participated in this Relevant Q&A:

Executive Director Jim Fogler

How did the public notice debate turn out in this year’s Florida legislative session?
We think we reached a solid compromise in light of the political dynamics in Florida. The compromise recognizes the continued need for effective notice to citizens and that newspapers and their websites are still a superior way to provide notice, as opposed to simply posting them to lightly trafficked government websites. While the current public model in Florida has been disrupted by the bill and the increased competition the bill fosters will hurt some of our larger papers, we think it is still the best outcome for Florida.

The May newsletter of “Public Notice Monthly” reports Florida is the “first state in the country to significantly dilute the statutory requirement that notices must be published in print newspapers, but there’s a lot for the newspaper industry and residents of the state to like about the bill.” What’s your assessment?
We think the printed newspaper will still be an important part of public notices going forward and the bill recognizes that. But the bill also contains forward-looking technology ideas, such as allowing local governments to use newspaper website-only publication in some cases. The bill also sets up an audience threshold non-rural newspapers must meet to qualify.

How does collaboration work in these types of legislative negotiations, given the divisive nature of politics these days? Was there a particular turning point?
We worked with the Senate sponsor, Senator Ray Rodrigues, and his staff, to reach a compromise after a long weekend of collaboration in mid-April, and a growing realization by the parties that something needed to be done to avoid the government-website option that had been moving on the House side. Everyone realized the time was ripe for a change, but it had to be the right one reflecting good policy for the state with the overarching goal of providing citizens of Florida adequate notice.

The Florida Press Association played a major role in the new law. Can you explain?
We were involved but it was a joint effort by the Senate sponsor, other senators, their staffs, allied newspaper and business groups, and, of course, our member newspapers who were there to testify at the many committee meetings.

Do you think what happened this year will do for the foreseeable future or will legislators who want to hurt newspapers will be back again?
Not sure. We are hopeful that this compromise will address concerns on both sides for at least the time being.

You also garnered some praise in the legislature and support for printed newspapers. Were you surprised?
It was nice to hear some of the positive comments but we believe that reflects what we have been saying for many years. We have been heralding the important function that newspapers bring to the public forum, by providing what is still the most effective means of informing citizens about the actions of their government and related actions.

Did being relatively new to Florida help you deal with the situation?
I believe I brought a new perspective to the table, but needed to get up to speed quickly, and at times it sure felt like I was drinking from a firehose. It was a total team effort. The Florida Press Association has a strong active board and we decided at the end of last session to put together a solid Public Notice Action Committee who were instrumental in leveraging our local leadership both on the House and Senate side, which I believe made the difference in the end. Instead of lumping us together with the national news media, they now have a better understanding that we are local community news organizations providing hyper-local news and information, and helping to make a difference in the local communities we serve.

Some people, including newspaper folks, wonder why in a digital age, we’re still fighting for public notices in print newspapers. Is this a lost cause or a principled fight even if revenue for newspapers and government wishes are at odds?
Even in the digital age, our newspapers still have an unsurpassable reach and traffic on their websites and other digital platforms. This has become a crucial additional way to get these notices to the citizens that rely on them, along with the print component, which is still important, especially in rural areas and with Florida’s demographics.

Finally, what is ahead?
Getting all of our Press Association members up to speed on what this means to them by hosting a few Public Notice Virtual Information sessions via Zoom calls, and then at our upcoming conference in July, we are placing this topic on a panel discussion which will included county clerks sharing their perspective on this new public notice bill. Then, we will need to get all of our quarterly tracking requirements in place for our statewide site as we become the Gateway to Public Notices.

Good luck, Jim and FPA. Thanks for the insightful answers.

–Tom Silvestri

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