As bill sponsors waver, Christie/Norcross axis may lose battle with newspapers

They buy ink by the barrel, but for newspapers the days of William Randolph Hearst are forever gone. Times are tough.

The same can be said for taxpayers, who are being run out of their homes unable to keep pace with the dizzying economic twirl.

State officials have been fixated on finding solutions for the taxpayers, but S2072 and A2082 was the last solution the news organizations were hoping for.

Essentially the same bills, they allow publication of legal notices by governments and individuals on official government websites instead of in newspapers.

That may not sound like a terrible idea, but many think it is.

Some think the taxpayer savings (if there are any) are a blatant excuse to attack the press, cutting out a stable and significant revenue stream.

The bill had been kept on the shelf for years, only seeing the light of day in the assembly. A version of the bill was passed by the lower chamber in 2004. But soon after state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) took over, it hit the Senate and was cleared by committee unanimously last July.

The people being blamed for the attack on print, according to sources and news reports, are Gov. Chris Christie and South Jersey political maven George Norcross, who counts Sweeney as his main ally in the Statehouse.

“In the early days of the (Christie) administration,” said Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, the powerful Norcross “seemed to be the embodiment of something the governor would rail against.”

In fact the governor had railed against Norcross in the past, or rather against Attorney General Peter Harvey’s mishandled prosecution of Norcross on suspicion of nefarious political wheeling and dealing when Christie was U.S. Attorney.

But these days the pair is said to be teaming up on a number of issues, like the legal ad bill.


Working its way out of Trenton

The bill was staunchly opposed by former state Sen. President Richard Codey (D-Roseland), who would not post it for a vote when former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, another Norcross ally, was sending the measure forward.

Sources said Codey’s aversion was partly a way of keeping his chummy relations with the press intact, partly a way of thumbing his nose at the South Jersey Dems, and partly because he opposed the bill on its merits.

Sweeney was not available to speak about the matter, but denied previously pressing for the bill to be posted through a spokesman, Chris Donnelly.

“Senator Sweeney is always interested in measures to save local governments from having to pay taxpayer dollars, but any claim that he previously advocated for this legislation is inaccurate. He will listen to and consider all sides of the discussion on this issue.”

Norcross would not comment on the bill or any role he has in pushing it.

The most outspoken critic of the bill – and the first to publicly call out Christie and Norcross for pressing it – is Star-Ledger publisher Richard Vezza, who testified before the Assembly committee hearing the bill last week.

His paper is the state’s most recognizable and banks 2.5 percent of its total revenue in the legal advertisements at stake.

“The thing that started me on the whole thing: they claimed savings,” Vezza said on Friday. “Nobody had any numbers.”

The soft estimate when the bill passed the Senate committee last year was $70 million in savings statewide, which was subsequently debunked by a group of news chiefs.

“We, the publishers, got together,” he said. “The best figure we could come up with was $20 million.”

“Here we are, six months later, and they’re claiming savings again,” he said. “You gotta question that…Nobody has done any work on any numbers.”

At least one entity has done some work recently. The New Jersey Press Association estimates that roughly $8 million is spent statewide – reimbursements excluded – on legal advertisement required by statute, a drastically lower figure than originally estimated.

Vezza said costs are not the matter; politics is. If the bill were to pass, officials in towns and counties could threaten to pull ads if they don’t like coverage, or conversely, throw their ad money behind a paper that gives more favorable coverage.

Vezza said Christie and Norcross are acting out because they don’t like the coverage they are getting.

He said sources have conveyed the message of the governor and the South Jersey insurance mogul: “I’ve talked to some people, the kind of things that reporters usually do. I’m not making it up. I have a few sources. I’m a former reporter.”

He said Christie is boycotting the Star-Ledger editorial board, in part because of a column Editorial Page editor Tom Moran wrote last year.


Politics at play?

“You think this is vendetta against Tommy Moran?” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Plains), who writes columns in several print and digital outlets, including PolitickerNJ.

He likes the bill, both from a fiscal perspective (if it saves money) and from a government organizational standpoint. Though this bill doesn’t provide for it, Carroll believes a state centralized website – a Craigslist for government – would provide a much better depository of information than various newspapers could.

“Who reads these things,” he said, joking in his seriousness. “A name change application?”

Of course, if it turns out there are no savings to be found in this solution, it would change his mind.

As far as the politicization that could emerge, he said, “Any time you give government discretion, there’s a problem.” But they shouldn’t be subsidizing newspapers on the taxpayer’s back, he said.

It’s not the job of municipalities to subsidize newspapers, Monclair State’s Harrison agrees. But she is still not convinced the bill is completely above-board.

“This is a perfect example of the kind of politics that Gov. Christie has engaged in,” Harrison said. Christie has an ability to spin legislation, she said: “It makes perfect sense on the surface.”

Theoretically, the bill could be supported by legislators looking for bad-press payback and-or seeking a less transparent system.

It could also allow more room for error by placing the ads online and unintentionally reduce the availability of information to the public

She called the “mutual advantageous” relationship between Christie and Norcross curious, and curiously evolving.

Two journalists recently told her that their organizations are being shut out by the Governor’s Office. “They believe this is punitive for unfavorable coverage,” she said.

One reason Christie is not shy about pressing the issue may be he is less reliant on local media than his predecessors. “He relies on the internet and YouTube more than any governor we’ve ever seen,” she said, and because he’s already a national figure, he also has a bevy of media outlets at his disposal.

One outlet that Christie has relied on at times is the right-leaning Fox News, particularly on-air personality Neil Cavuto, who moderated the governor’s business forum last week.

News Corp., which owns Fox News, contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) last year. Around the same time, the RGA produced a high-quality trailer featuring Gov. Christie as its party star.

John Pavlik, chairman of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said Christie may be treading on ice by leaning on Fox.

“If you’re making a particular news organization your exclusive conduit to the public,” he said, “and if that news source has been a funder, that could be potentially a conflict of interest, or it may present the perception of that in some fashion.”

Not only that, but picking Fox as the source could also be a detriment, Pavlik said.

“If there is the perception that some organization has less objectivity (or) tends to have a political perspective aligned with your political party,” Pavlik said, a “perceived bias” might arise. “That may not serve your interest in the long run of serving all the citizenry.”

The bill at hand, Pavlik said, certainly has consequences for newspapers, especially smaller outlets and community papers. “There could be significant economic consequences if they lose that revenue,” he said.

“There could be political motivations,” he admits. “The most important thing really is…making sure that the newspapers are able to provide the information to the public in a way that serves the public interest effectively.”

As far as that being exclusively online, Pavlik notes: “There’s still a digital divide in some communities.”


Going digital to save money

Bill co-sponsor Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) understands well the digital divide, and since the new examination of the bill has erupted, Coutinho himself is undergoing a thorough review and cost analysis.

He wants to find out if the bill addresses the problem from the right perspective, although he doesn’t think a fixed rate system is the best move for the state.

If that means a bid system opens up the process to more political maneuvering, he said, “Politics is always going to exist.”

Many municipalities are already advertising in additional newspapers in their local area without any mandate to do so, he said, and that ad money could be used as leverage as the law reads today.

The failing business model of newspapers, in general, is also part of the problem here – although it’s not his problem – but Coutinho is concerned with potential unintended consequences of smaller papers closing due to the lost revenue.

“I am going to take an honest look at that,” he said, but from a local official’s point of view: “If you start taking things off the table, you’re not left with anything.”

Coutinho called accusations that he was part of a political alliance to put a hit on the papers “bombastic allegations,” but they piqued his curiosity. He’s making his own inquiries into possible “ulterior motives” of bill backers.

He said in a week or so, he’ll decide what role he will play in the future of this bill.

“I may pull my support of the bill,” he said, but, “I remain committed to the fact that there’s not enough money to go around.”

A bottom line of $8 million could mean 80 police officers statewide, he said.

Just on a municipal level, he said, “If that’s three police officers, you start to look at this a little differently.”

State Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R-Demarest) is co-sponsoring the Senate bill and disputes any politics at play.

“When I first put this bill in, we didn’t have this governor,” Cardinale said. “This governor doesn’t control the legislature.”

“They suspect that folks are angry at newspapers,” he said. “When push comes to shove, democracy depends on dissemination of information to the public.”

He’s also reviewing new information to examine cost savings. If there’s none, he’s not interested. In fact, he said he may prefer another bill that gives municipalities a 40 percent rate cut across the board for legal advertising rates.


Competing for savings

The alternate bill is sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), but has not been moved on.

“We’re giving out great big tax breaks to certain businesses,” she said, yet “they’re trying to dismantle the newspaper industry.”

“Because I don’t like one of your columns?” she said of the Moran piece. “It’s mind-boggling to me. If it hadn’t been for the Star-Ledger, the governor wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing at Passaic Valley” she said of the ongoing scandal at the commission. To be fair, Christie thanked the Star-Ledger and reporter Ted Sherman this week.

In her bill, the reduced rates would be offset by an increase in costs to private entities legally required to post advertising. It would provide direct savings to towns without allowing for any further politicization between the pols and the papers.

“If that’s all that they’re interested in, they should look at that bill.”

Finding savings in the original bill would be difficult, according to Stephen Borg, publisher of The Record, who like Vezza testified before the Assembly committee last week.

Borg gives Paramus as an example. In 2010, the paper took in $12,542 in taxpayer-funded legal advertising and $17,874 in private party legal advertising.

Of the $17,874 in private legal advertising, $1,970 was billed through the town; the remainder was processed and printed in a transaction absent the municipality – directly between the paper and the private entities placing the ads.

Under the new law, if towns opted to handle their own legal ads and display them on a website, Borg said, “That means the town clerk would have more new legals to handle.” In Paramus, the town would be responsible for data management and display of more than double the volume of ads it previously handled.

“Paramus is not an anomaly,” he said. There are labor and IT costs to be considered, but aren’t in the bill, Borg said, like an estimated cost of $1,000 per month just for a secure and optimal database system.

“I actually don’t know what they were thinking,” he said. “You’re actually moving work from the private sector to the public sector.”

If that’s the true, it negates some of Christie’s most sacred policy tenets, i.e. find a private partnership and reduce taxpayer costs. Borg said the partnership is already functioning, in this case. “This (bill) is the opposite of optimization,” he said. “The numbers show it’s not a more efficient solution.”


The secondary toolkit

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo said in published reports that he would continue to post legal ads in newspapers.

His concern: “Someone could pull back ads on a political basis.”

He downplayed any connection between the governor and Norcross on the bill.

“There’s no Christie or George,” said DiVincenzo, freely admitting his strong alliances with the two recently. “We’re not going to agree on everything.”

“This is a part of the toolkit,” he said. “Should they be commended for this? They shouldn’t be condemned.”

Technically, the bill isn’t part of the toolkit, according to the governor’s office.

In fact, Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Christie, has been responding to every press inquiry the same on the matter: “Like all bills, it will be carefully reviewed and considered by counsel’s office and the Governor if and when it clears both houses of the legislature.”

“It’s the second box of tools, I guess,” said prime sponsor Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). He was hesitant to stand up for the bill in earnest when he spoke with PolitickerNJ last week, and has publicly begun to walk back his support since.

“I thought this was a no-brainer,” Bramnick said, noting what he thought were synergies between the policy and the practice. “Newspapers are going online, as well. Who’s randomly flipping through to find out where the Board of Adjustments is meeting?”

It wasn’t a political play or payback, he said. “I have no problem with newspapers.”

At the Assembly hearing last week, he said, “I could see the fear in the faces of the newspaper (leaders).”

Even though the non-partisan fiscal estimate for the bill could not determine what the cost savings would be, Bramnick said he believed it’d be “much cheaper” for towns to use the web. He’s not sure how he’ll proceed. “I do have some concern,” he said.

But he isn’t buying the politics and anti-news routine: “There’s probably a political angle on every bill.”

Neither does Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “This idea has been thrown around for the last few years,” he said. “It predates this governor.”

Murray, a Camden County native, said even if the bill was politically motivated, “Local governments are actually pushing for a lot of this.”

Bill Dressel, executive director of the League of Municipalities, said he’s not sure whether or not the League will back this bill as constituted.

“Historically, we’ve supported the bill,” he said, but Weinberg’s bill may be the better route. “We’re looking very favorably towards that.”

First and foremost, he said, the League is interested in finding cost savings, “scrutinizing every dollar.” Dressel is meeting with his committee to find out where the League stands.

“If they can save a dollar,” he said, “the time is right.”

But as one prominent state legislator put it bluntly: “It’s not about saving the towns money. It’s about trying to get newspapers out of business.”


Press relations

In South Jersey particularly, several sources confirmed, a culture of resistance to the local press is prevalent.

Camden County disregarded the legal ad law recently, according to a Superior Court decision last year.

In 2007, the county decided it would put its legal advertisements out to bid, but the New Jersey newspapers in the area declined to submit because they believed it was an illegal circumvention of the law.

The only paper to put in a bid – which was lower than the statutory prices – was the Philadelphia Inquirer. Camden County accepted the bid, spurning Camden’s hometown paper, the Courier-Post, which sources said was being punished for delving too far into the Camden County political mire.

 “They would much rather not have any newspapers,” the Camden County source said.

Gannett, owners of the Asbury Park Press, and the Courier-Post jointly sued the county for opening bids on the legal ad work, and were joined in the suit by the N.J. Press Association.

Although the Camden County courts did not see it their way, a Superior Court did. Last March, the court held that since the “out-of-state newspaper was not ‘printed and published’ in New Jersey within the meaning of the legal advertising statutes” and “violated statute setting forth exact rates that newspapers could charge for official advertising,” the bidding process was, in fact, illegal.

“That took about ten minutes,” Vezza recalls. The Inquirer bid was overturned.

“Newspapers still play an important and vital role,” said former investigative journalist and current Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Washington Twp.). Moriarty gets lumped in with the other South Jersey Democrats being fingered for the bill’s ascension, but he’s not a clear aye.

“As a former mayor, I know how much we used to pay,” he said, but he cited “unintentional consequences” of closing down small newspapers.

“So many weekly and smaller newspapers (in) places that really aren’t getting covered by newspapers anymore,” he said, “without this revenue stream, they close.”

He disagrees with the notion that his fellow legislators from the south are anti-press.

“I like the Star-Ledger,” Moriarty said. “I take no offense in someone’s opinion.”

He isn’t as clear on whether the governor is taking a position against the local print media.

“The governor was fine with shutting NJN down, if need be, for $8 million, which I totally disagree with,” he said.


Other feedback

State Sen. Brain Stack (D-Union City) is the other Senate sponsor, and also a mayor who deals with the legal advertising directly.

“I’m a guy that reads newspapers,” Stack said. “I sympathize with the newspapers. No one has approached me in a political sense to go after a newspaper.”

But from a municipal standpoint, he said, “We all can do a little bit more.”

“It’s very small in the budget. I’m not going to lie,” he said, but, “Once you have a website, (this bill would be) much cheaper (than the current standard).”

Will his city opt out of the current legal ad setup if the bill passes?

“We don’t know what we will do right now,” he said. “We’ll probably use both…A lot of it is on the website already.”

State Sen. Ron Rice, Sr. (D-Newark), said he has reservations about the bill because seniors and poor people who read the paper would be excluded from the communications about government, jobs, and contracts.

Not to mention the opportunity to act on “individual vindictiveness” against the papers.

“Joe D spends the county money buying a half-page ad. They love him,” Rice said. “The rest of us get a punch in the face. You walk around with a swollen jaw and no one apologizes.”

That said, “We still should have freedom of the press. Sometimes we pay for that freedom.”

Of the South Jersey Dems, he said, “They don’t like bad spin when they do something stupid.”

“The governor really can’t complain,” he said. “He’s getting media access,” while Rice said he can’t edge an op-ed on Newark homicide rates into the paper.

From what he has seen, though, some journalists and media figures may be leaning too hard against the bill from the other side. “They’re saying: We got a lot of ink.”

Another former media type, state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park) is on the fence.

“I had some real questions about it,” she said. For one, not everybody has a computer.

“I would argue that everybody should have public access to information,” she said, at the same time being very cognizant of the need for local cost cutting measures. “We need to be mindful of how we do it.”

“Having a vibrant media is important,” she said. “And we don’t have as vibrant a media as we should.” For instance, investigative reporting has waned, she said.

Allen was caught a bit off guard by questions about whether the bill would present political struggles and negotiations.

“Those sorts of problems, I’m sure do exist, but I don’t have personal knowledge of them,” she said. “That’s not good for citizens. Maybe there’s room for negotiation (in the bill), but I’m not clear that telling businesses what they can charge is the solution.”

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), whose brother is at the center of the political debate over the issue, said he was not aware of any anti-newspaper sentiment in South Jersey, nor does he know of any political motivations behind the current legal ad bill.

“I guess they would have called me,” he said, if there were. “I haven’t even read the bill.”

As bill sponsors waver, Christie/Norcross axis may lose battle with newspapers