A needless attack on newspapers – and democracy | Moran

Senator Troy Singleton is normally one of the most sane voices in Trenton, a hard-working guy who could one day become New Jersey’s first black governor.

So I was surprised to learn that he was the sponsor of a bill that would put the newspaper industry on its feet for no good reason. It would force more layoffs and closings in an industry that has collectively lost half of its workforce over the past decade. And it would allow New Jersey politicians to operate more often in the dark, without anyone looking at them. What could possibly go wrong?

Maybe I needed to adjust my thinking about this man.

But then Singleton showed that rare quality that can turn a good politician into a great one: he admitted that he messed it all up, that his bill was woefully flawed, and that he himself hadn’t realized to. how bad he was.

“We’re going to go back to the drawing board,” Singleton told me. “The concerns are very justified.

The fundamental objective of this bill is reasonable. This would allow county sheriffs to conduct foreclosure auctions online rather than in person. They are bracing for a wave of foreclosures once the pandemic moratorium is lifted, and taking them online would make it easier. Bankers backed it as well, knowing it would open up the auction to a wider audience.

The evil is elsewhere. The law now requires public notice of seizures in two newspapers for four weeks. This ensures that everyone has a chance to participate in these auctions, hoping to buy a home at a discount.

Singleton’s bill would lift this requirement, allowing banks and mortgage companies to advertise auctions online only. It would rob the newspaper industry of around $ 10-12 million a year, enough to kill some smaller newspapers and force layoffs at the larger ones.

This blow would deal while newspapers are already in trouble during the pandemic. At an assembly hearing on Wednesday, editors at two smaller newspapers said they were so understaffed that they wrote, photographed and even sold advertisements, all on their own. “I fired my wife,” said Brett Aimsworth of The Retrospect in South Jersey.

Since 2004, 75 New Jersey weeklies have closed, along with three dailies, according to Richard Vezza, former editor and publisher of the Star-Ledger, who testified on behalf of the Star-Ledger and the New Jersey Press Association.

“This bill will turn New Jersey into an information desert,” he said. “The assumption that communities that lose their newspapers will get their news online is wrong. Local New Jersey online news sites are operated by newspapers. If the newspaper closes or loses journalists, so does the online site.

Keep in mind that Singleton’s bill would do all of this damage without saving taxpayers a dime. The cost of these announcements is borne by the banks which file the foreclosures. So, in effect, the bill would transfer money from newspapers to banks, for reasons that remain a mystery. Singleton swears the banks had no influence over him, and a New Jersey Bankers Association spokeswoman declined to answer multiple phone calls and emails.

Like most bad ideas in Trenton, this one has been rushed. It had a single Senate hearing, without discussion, unanimous approval and a timeline for a quick vote in the full Senate on Monday. But by the time he moved to an Assembly committee on Wednesday, word had spread and supporters of the free press began to rally.

“It is very important that we do not start, because of the pandemic, to connect only online,” said MP Annette Chapparo (D-Hudson). “Because not everyone connects to the Internet. “

This bill would be particularly hard on low income families. Among households earning less than $ 30,000 a year, 54% have desktops or laptops, compared with 94% of households earning more than $ 100,000, according to a 2019 survey from Pew Research. Equally important is the gap in domestic broadband.

And according to Vezza, the most vulnerable newspapers are those serving cities with large minority populations, like Trenton and Paterson and Jersey City. “It is the communities that are going to feel the impact first,” he said.

Singleton was also influenced by Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) who expressed her concern to him. “I reached out to Troy and told him that was a big step back,” she said. “It’s not just about undermining the newspapers, which we need to help keep going to keep exposing the things we do right and wrong. It is also transparency.

Pew also documents a large digital age divide, and Weinberg said even older people who are online often lack the fluency to find these ads. “For my generation, I’m pretty savvy, but if I think there are a lot of foreclosures in my neighborhood, and it’s online, where do you even go? “

Singleton’s bill is still breathing, and he says he will likely submit a new version after the fall election. Newspapers will not expire, however, until after an amendment is added that preserves the existing advertising mandate.

It is not a heavy burden. The newspapers have no objection to moving this online auction, and the sheriffs have no objection to preserving the current mandate on newspaper advertising.

“We are ad agnostics,” said Detective Lt. Michael Turkot of the Morris County Sheriff’s Office, who testified before the Assembly. “Our only goal is to allow sheriff’s offices to auction online.”

In 2016, former Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic leaders in the Legislature introduced an even worse bill than this, a more radical effort to remove the newspaper advertising mandate from government actions. It was a vindictive gesture, and public pressure forced them to retreat.

The Assembly and the Senate have tabled this bill so far, so the mad rush has failed. When it comes back, let’s hope it won’t be pointed like a dagger at newspapers like this again. You may be one of the 60% of Americans who tell Gallup they don’t trust “mass media.” But what fool would believe that allowing New Jersey politicians to do their jobs in the dark would benefit the state?

After: Tom Moran’s Columns

Tom Moran can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Notice on Facebook.

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