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Our view: Making another case for legals in newspapers

Giving a break to what appears to be mostly out-of-state corporations would mean some serious pain for the small newspapers in the state.

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With the start of every session of the North Dakota Legislature – actually, probably any legislature in the nation – comes another possible assault on newspaper legals.

We tire of these efforts, probably as much as readers tire of our griping about it.

But remember: Whether they know it or even acknowledge it, any reader who reads this has a solid understanding of why it’s important that newspapers continue to be the home of legals – those sometimes monotonous segments that outline a government entity’s efforts and future plans.

The latest is Senate Bill 2143, which seeks to “amend and reenact section 26.1-03-10 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to the publication of the abstract of an insurance company annual statement.”

A look back to a May edition of the Grand Forks Herald can shed some light on these abstracts. Generally, they are out-of-state businesses that do sales within North Dakota’s borders.

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On May 11, the Herald published multiple pages abstracts, for companies like Arizona-based WellCare Prescription Insurance Inc., which lists assets of more than $3.1 billion; the Ohio-based Cincinnati Life Insurance Company, which lists more than $4.9 billion in assets; and the Nebraska-based West Coast Life Insurance Company, which lists more than $4.3 billion in assets.

According to the North Dakota Newspaper Association, SB 2143 is backed by mostly out-of-state insurance companies. There is no cost to the state for publishing these notices, the NDNA said.

Yes, newspapers do earn money on these required legals. The NDNA estimates that the North Dakota daily newspapers gained about $66,000 in revenue, combined. In our business, that’s a nice little bump, but it’s not make-or-break money. Yet the state’s weeklies earn considerably more – upwards of a half-million dollars combined.

For those who still enjoy their local weekly newspaper – and there are still thousands of readers who subscribe to weeklies in the state – that kind of money does matter.

Giving a break to what appears to be mostly out-of-state corporations would mean some serious pain for the small newspapers in the state. That means fewer news stories, less basketball coverage and the like.

It's just not worth it.

It’s important to always note that for the entities that are required to publish legals, it’s usually just a fraction of a single percent of their overall budget. That’s a low price to pay for the transparency it provides.

Of course, SB 2143 might be dropped and fall into obscurity, but inevitably, new proposals regarding newspaper legals will arise. Generally, they seek to change the laws so legals don’t have to be placed in newspapers, but rather on government websites.

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That’s not a safe place.

Whereas we believe government employees are good, honest people, allowing these documents to live on government websites invites the potential for tampering. A better method is to use a third-party location – in this case in newspapers, which not only are archived for perpetuity, but which have websites on which these documents can be kept.

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