by Guy Page
A battle in the Vermont media over a lucrative revenue source is shaping up in the Vermont Senate.
A Vermont Senate committee is reviewing a bill that would allow much of state and local government ‘legal advertising’ to be published on electronic-only news websites – such as (for example) VT Digger or Vermont Daily Chronicle. State law currently directs government legal advertising to traditional, printed, hold-in-your-hands newspapers.
S174, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Chair Jeannette White (D-Windham), is scheduled to be reviewed in Senate Gov Ops at 2:30 pm today. Scheduled to testify are two well-known Vermont journalism figures: Michael Donoghue, Vice President, Vermont Press Association, and Anne Galloway, Executive Director, VT Digger.
The VPA constitution limits active membership to “bonafide newspapers,” although wire services, freelance writers, college journalism departments, and newspaper industry vendors may participate as associate or sustaining members. However, there is no specific provision for online news-only membership or participation.
VT Digger is perhaps the best-read, most-staffed Vermont news outlet – and it is published completely online, although some print newspapers republish its news articles.
While Vermont newspapers have seen significant decline over the last two decades, and especially during the pandemic, online news outlets have thrived, relatively speaking, and none more so than VT Digger. With more readers consuming news online, and without needing increasingly expensive, hard-to-find printing services, online news outlets like VT Digger have lower costs than newspapers.
It also has a sophisticated marketing staff that is well-positioned to seek legal advertising that is now almost exclusively sold in newspapers. State law obliges state and local governments to print notices of meetings and proposed changes in ordinances and bylaws. The proposed law would continue to require legal ads regarding property to be published in newspapers.
If S174 passes, the cost of legal advertising would likely drop due to competition – a benefit to taxpayers. However, it also would imperil the future of newspaper publication in Vermont – an arguable loss to taxpayers and other citizens who rely on community and regional newspapers for important state and community information.
Senate Gov Ops livestreams its meetings on YouTube.