Amity publisher speaks out against bill at Capitol hearing

News from Yesterday may be a little slim in this week’s edition of The Southern Standard, Clark County’s newspaper of record, because the publisher took the day off. His loyal readers should know that Wednesday was not a play day for Joe May. It was more like a save The Southern Standard Day — the day May began his battle with House Bill 1399 in the state legislature.

In this screen grab of a recorded meeting at the state capitol, Clark County native Joe May, publisher of the weekly Southern Standard newspaper, speaks to members of the Arkansas House of Representatives.

On Wednesday he told a House of Representatives subcommittee why the proposed new law may end The Southern Standard. May was one of only eight citizens who were able to speak for or against the HB1399 despite the committee room being packed with many more who had signed up to speak. Most of the committee’s two hours was taken up with discussion by the committee members with the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Frances Cavenaugh (R-Walnut Ridge). During that time the bill was actually put on hold when Rep. Carol Dalby (R-Texarkana) requested a financial impact be completed on the bill. Despite the hold the chairman, Rep. Milton Nicks Jr. (D-Marion) did allow the remaining time to be used for testimony from the public.

The proposed law causing the problem for May and every other newspaper “of record” in the state would strike a line from long-standing state law that says required legal notices shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county, town or city. Under the proposed law, instead, the entity required to publish the legal notice could choose to post their notices on a single third-party-owned website chosen through state bidding procedures. 

The bill places the third-party website bidding, structure, function and oversight responsibilities with the Arkansas Legislative Audit Division. Late changes to the bill left legal notices and required notices dealing with bids and construction to be published in newspapers. Five other types of required public notices would have the “print in a newspaper requirement” removed so the publishing agency could choose to publish those on the third-party web site.

In his comments to the committee May did acknowledge that the bill’s sponsor had made several last-minute changes that made it less objectionable, but he adamantly maintained the bill was likely a death sentence for a beloved Arkansas institution — the small-town community newspaper. 

May’s newspaper is headquartered in the small Clark County town of Amity, where he said subscriptions and advertising did not provide financial stability for the newspaper. He left no doubt that the loss of income from legal notices would threaten the newspaper’s survival. He countered Cavenaugh’s idea that a single online source for legal notices was a better choice when he said of his publication, “The citizens depend on it to learn local news and government happenings, especially when it comes to the annual delinquent tax list. I am going to tell you that if you have ever had your name appear on that list, as I have, you won’t forget to pay your taxes because you are going to have so many people telling you that they saw your name in the newspaper.” 

May also pointed out that the cost of the annual delinquent tax report was paid with fines from those with delinquent taxes and not from county coffers.

May was joined in opposing HB1399 by the general manager of other South Arkansas newspapers in El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden as well as the president of the WEHCO Newspaper Division publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Speaking for the bill were Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse and Craighead County Judge Marvin Day, who both said the bill would save money for their city and county. The Fort Smith city clerk expressed similar sentiments.

The bill will come back before the committee for further consideration when the financial impact study is submitted.

3 replies »

  1. This is just another attempt by the GOP to make information harder to find. I’ve long been an advocate for spreading information online, but that should be in addition to traditional mediums, not in their stead. The goal should be to make information as easy to find as possible. Not everyone gets the paper, but not everyone uses the internet either, especially senior citizens. And if we have local papers dying off, that centralizes the market and helps big business at the expense of everyone else. Big business ain’t gonna cover local issues. Even if it costs more, I do think it’s a worthwhile expense as a public good. I think it’s great that Joe May spoke against the bill and I hope state legislators really think about what he said.

  2. If the idea of getting legal notices read by more ordinary people — importantly, including those without Internet access or technical know-how — then the Legislature should choose to remain with general circulation newspapers, which have the ready-made audience to reach far more everyday readers. Read: Not just the politicians and politicians’ friends, who will most likely set up and profit from any new system.

  3. Many do not have computers or internet access. Denying those people public information by no longer publishing legal notices in local newspapers is not being transparent. This would be a disservice to our citizens.

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