Projo’s Glass House — Company Earns Hundreds of Thousands from Antiquated Legal Notices Requirement

Thursday, August 09, 2018
EDITORIAL

Projo earns hundreds of thousands from mandated legal notices
Cash-strapped cities and towns, as well as state agencies, have been forced annually to pay hundreds of thousands to advertise legal notices due to an arcane, outdated law.  The recipient of the payments?

The Providence Journal.

When both Governor Lincoln Chafee and Governor Gina Raimondo submitted their budgets to remove the outdated and expensive requirement — what did the depleted Providence Journal do? Hire a lobbyist -- insider Joe Walsh -- to have the budget articles removed over the objection of the League of Cities and Towns.  Walsh was paid nearly $100,000 to keep the decades-old statute on the books.

According to state records, the Projo still gobbles up upwards of $700,000 per year in taxpayer funds for these outdated notices. And in Providence, the city is still forced by the outdated law to spend, on average, more than $60,000 per year.

Dan Beardsley, the then-Executive Director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns confirmed in 2016 to GoLocal that the organization representing the municipalities across Rhode Island supports the repeal of the outdated requirement.

The requirement to use newspapers is decades old, as the legislation was passed well before the Internet was created. Actually, the law was on the books since before man walked on the moon. The requirement does not reflect where readers collect most of their information or that newspapers circulations have plummeted. According to media expert Mary Meeker, consumers spend just 4 percent of their media consumption time with print.

In 2014, Chafee pushed for the elimination as a budget article, "The FY 2015 Budget provides entities the option to use alternative methods of posting legal notices," according to the budget summary. The provision, Article 22, would give the state 120 days to establish rules for a public website.

The Chafee administration's argument was that newspapers no longer reach more people than the Internet. Since 82 percent of Rhode Island adults have used a state website for services, it would be a difficult argument for newspapers to defeat. Not only would their proposed website be available for free - not behind a paywall, or stuck in a newspaper box, or lining a birdcage – but its aim was to be proactive. Users would be able to sign up to receive postings that match their business or interests.

Walsh -- who along with his firm has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to members of the General Assembly -- did the Projo's bidding, and quashed the reform efforts. 

"The very idea of having to publish legal notices in a newspaper seems pretty old-fashioned," said Dan Kennedy, Associate Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University told GoLocal in 2014.

The Projo is now casting aspersions at GoLocal because, in their mind, GoLocal is cutting into their turf.  But, there are a number of differences.

First, GoLocal was asked by the city to help distribute information about public hearings and meeting via the web, social media and email.  Second, the agreement was signed by the City Clerk and the payments were approved by the City Treasurer and Mayor Elorza’s Finance Director Larry Mancini.

The payments were made during the tenure of three city council presidents.  And, unlike the shrinking distribution of the Providence Journal — GoLocal continues to expand in all measure by double digits annually.

The once locally owned Providence Journal that covered Rhode Island news like a blanket with a newsroom of more than 300, now has been slashed and cut to between 10-15 news reporters.  A sad commentary on corporate greed and inability to realize that people would move away from shooting ink onto dead trees and would rather have their news delivered digitally.

Maybe the Projo could lead by example and demonstrate that their hands are clean. Drop the State House lobbyist and support the recision of the outdated law.  This would save cities, towns and state agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. The hypocrisy of the Projo's moral outrage is as hollow as its newsroom — vast and vacant.

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