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Rates soar, issues surface with legal notices in local newspaper

Cook County News-Herald offices in downtown Grand Marais. Photo by Joe Friedrichs
Cook County News-Herald offices in downtown Grand Marais. Photo by Joe Friedrichs

In recent years, the Cook County News-Herald and its editorial page centralized as a platform for local residents, former elected officials and the newspaper itself to air grievances against county government.

Many of these concerns focus on where, why and how much money the county spends, specifically when it comes to use of local taxpayer dollars.

Meanwhile, during the past decade, the News-Herald has steadily increased what it charges the county to publish documents it is legally required to post. These documents are filed as public notices. During the past decade, from 2008 to 2018, the rate the News-Herald charges the county has increased by 432 percent. This increase means the newspaper collected approximately $28,000 more in 2017, in the form of taxpayer dollars, than it did 10 years ago.

In addition, the process of how the newspaper arrived at the current rate it charges to publish legal notices, which is $9 per column inch, is garnering attention. According to Minnesota Statutes 331A.06, “no newspaper may increase its rates for publication of public notices by more than ten percent per year, as compared to the maximum rate actually charged by the newspaper in the previous year for publication of public notices.”

For two specific years during the past decade, here are the rate increases for the News-Herald, according to the Cook County Auditor's Office:

2009    $3.50
2010    $5.75   (64 percent increase from 2009)

And:

2012    $6.00
2013    $8.00   (33 percent increase from 2012) 

WTIP contacted three lawyers for their interpretation of the state statute. All three agreed that the statute could mean that the newspaper was violating price rules, but cautioned that the matter would have to be litigated further to establish the statute's exact meaning. 

During a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Jan. 8, the county board opted to have the News-Herald continue serving as their official legal newspaper. As the News-Herald is the only publication in Cook County registered as a ‘legal’ newspaper, the county board was left with little choice on where to publish its legal and public notices. These notices include meeting minutes and notifications of when and where county meetings will take place.  

When voting to support the motion to select the News-Herald as the county’s legal newspaper, Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said the county “does not have a choice.”

According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, legal newspapers are officially designated publications in which citizens and governmental units advertise notices required by law. This law requires that notices must be placed in legal newspapers for many public hearings, opening of bids for public contracts, public land sales, corporate dissolutions, and numerous other private and government activities.

Ben Petok is the communications director for the Minnesota Office of Secretary of State. When asked by WTIP about the history of the law that requires local governments to publish legal notices, Petok said the practice has been around for many years.

“This has been in the statutes for a very long time,” he said, “maybe even from the 1800s.”

There are over 300 legal newspapers currently registered with the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State. Most counties have more than one newspaper registered as ‘legal,’ or qualified to publish legal notices. Across Minnesota’s 87 counties, only 11 have just one legal newspaper. Included in this group is Cook County and the News-Herald. When there is just one legal newspaper in a community, or in this case, a county, it is essentially up to the newspaper publisher to set the rate for publishing legal notices. In counties where there is more than one legal newspaper, bids are placed to local governments and in most instances the lower bid is selected.

Peter Rice, a journalist based in Albuquerque and occasional WTIP contributor, said that regardless of regional controversies, posting public notices in newspapers has strengthened American institutions by promoting government transparency. 

“The history of democracy is a history of citizens browbeating their public officials into telling them what they're up to,” Rice said. “Without public meeting notices, elected officials and people appointed to boards can meet and decide important things in secret. So fundamentally, it’s a very good idea to force governments to advertise their activities. But these days the technology equation has changed everything. We all know these notices could be published on the web for free, and since it's all easily searchable that’s arguably even more transparent than before. But at the same time, going totally to the web would take away one of the last stable sources of advertising revenue for an important industry that is barely hanging on.”

During a December 2018 meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, there was significant discussion about looking to publish more information on the county’s website rather than in the newspaper as a means to save money. Exactly how this will take shape in 2019 is not yet determined, though Cook County Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers told WTIP reshaping what the county publishes online only and not in the newspaper could be an avenue to save the county money.

“I can say that the cost of publishing our minutes will likely go down significantly,” Powers said. 

For many years there were two newspapers in Cook County, with both the Cook County Star and the News-Herald qualifying as ‘legal’ newspapers in the community. In 2008, the publishers of the Star purchased the News-Herald, merging the newspapers into one operation.  In the year following this merger the increases to publish public notices for the county started their climb.

WTIP contacted the editorial department and owners of the News-Herald for this story. Questions were asked about why the rates to publish legal notices have increased by more than 400 percent during the past decade, and what the News-Herald’s reaction is to spending approximately $28,000 more in local taxpayer dollars to publish these legal notices at the gain of the newspaper.

Brian Larsen is the editor of the News-Herald. In a statement sent to WTIP, he said “the 463 percent increase you are looking at when compared to today’s bids came from a bidding war between two papers. Not only didn't the winning paper make any money when it ‘won’ the bids, it lost money on the pages the legals were run on because it cost more to print the pages than the legals brought in.”

Bidding wars aside, Larsen used an anecdote to explain why the legals are $9 per column inch in the News-Herald.

“In 1997, the legals were $5.40 per column inch and butter was 79 cents a pound in town,” he said. “Last time I shopped butter was $4 a pound.”

And while inflation is simple economics and often cited for why something costs more now than it did at a certain time in the past, there remains the question of the state statute and the fact newspapers can only increase their rates 10 percent annually when it comes to publishing legal notices.

The News-Herald did not respond to questions posed about the process of increasing the rates specifically, particularly for 2010 and 2013. However, Larsen did note the fact the newspaper’s rates to publish public notices have leveled off in recent years.

“From 2013 to 2019, we have gone up one dollar,” he said. “Again, when you look back since then at the increase in health care, food, housing, you name it, our increase isn't that great and it falls within the state statute guidelines.”

As it is, the News-Herald will charge the county $9 per column inch to publish legal notices in 2019. By contrast, County Administrator Jeff Cadwell pointed out that Lake County – which shares its border with Cook County – is charged less than half the rate of Cook County to run legal notices in their selected newspaper.

Laurel Buchanan is the clerk for the Lake County Board of Commissioners. She told WTIP the Northshore Journal based in Silver Bay is the legal newspaper for Lake County in 2019. They are charging the county a rate of $4.40 per column inch to publish legal notices in the newspaper. 

Cadwell said this varying cost between the two neighboring counties could serve as a prime example of the fact it simply costs more to do business in Cook County when compared to the rest of the state.

Lorene Hanson is the auditor for Lake of the Woods County located in northern Minnesota. Similar to Cook County, there is only one legal newspaper in Lake of the Woods County, the Northern Light Region. Hanson said the county pays the newspaper $6.50 per column inch to run legal notices in the newspaper. With approximately 30 years working in county government, Hanson seemed shocked when she was told about the $9 per column inch rate that Cook County pays to the News-Herald.

“Oh my,” she said.

When asked by WTIP about the past decade of rate increases in the News-Herald, Cadwell said they do not match what other nearby counties are paying to run legal notices.

“With costs of doing mandated business and increases in property tax levy repeatedly highlighted as a concern, it is unfortunate that local newspaper rates are nearly double competitive rates in the region,” Cadwell said.

Below is a timeline with the rates the News-Herald charges per column inch to run legal notices, as well as how much it has cost local taxpayers to publish these notices.
 
Local newspaper rates for Cook County for legal notices by year, listed at a rate of per column inch
 
2005    $.70 

2006    $3.50

2007    $2.65

2008   $1.60

2009    $3.50 (News-Herald became only choice in county as legal newspaper following a merger with Cook County Star in 2008)

2010    $5.75

2011    $6.00

2012    $6.00

2013    $8.00

2014    $8.75

2015    $8.75

2016    $8.75

2017    $8.75

2018    $9.00

2019    $9.00
 
Total paid by Cook County to the News-Herald for publishing legal notices for the following years:

2008 = $4,787.24

2017 = $32,715.05