Virginia to become first state to allow online-only local news sites to publish legal notices

Newspaper boxes at the Rosslyn Metro station in 2010 (Flickr pool photo by Team Rank)

Virginia has become the first state in the nation to approve the publication of legal notices in online-only local news sites.

Twin bills passed in February with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the Virginia General Assembly, HB 264 and SB 157, were signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Tuesday, April 2. The legislation will become law on July 1, 2024.

The bills came about via a collaborative effort between the Virginia Press Association and an ad-hoc group of online-only Virginia local news publishers, including ARLnow’s publisher.

Following unsuccessful efforts to pass similar legislation in Virginia, dating back to 2018, VPA and small Virginia-based online local news publishers last year developed a framework that allows courts to declare local news sites eligible to publish legal notices based on a readership audit, locally based staffing and other factors.

Legal notices are paid advertising placements required by law for certain actions, from restaurants applying for a liquor license to local governments holding hearings on proposed ordinances. In Arlington, legal notices for county government meetings and actions are placed in the Washington Times at a cost of around $35,000 per year, per a 2020 FOIA request shared with ARLnow.

The enactment of HB 264 and SB 157 marks a major milestone in the continued digital transition of the news industry — a painful, decades long process that has resulted in mass layoffs of local journalists and the closure of five local newspapers every two weeks, on average.

Previously, in Virginia and all other states, legal notice requirements could only be fulfilled through publication by print newspapers. (An Oregon law passed last year allows publication in certain digital newspaper replicas with paid subscribers and a just-passed Indiana bill allows print newspapers to publish notices primarily in digital form.)

Print newspaper circulation has been declining since the 1980s and last year fell by 14% last year among the largest U.S. papers. Weekday circulation of local daily papers in 2020 was about 5 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

So far, online-only local outlets are only partially making up for the loss of print papers, with some 550 sites currently in operation across the county. But in places where such sites do operate with robust local readership, the new Virginia legislation will allow residents, businesses and government entities to choose to place notices in any qualifying local publication, regardless of whether people read it on paper or on a screen.

“The Virginia Press Association believes that independent, third-party local news sites (print or online) are the best place to publish government public notices,” said Betsy Edwards, VPA Executive Director. “We supported this legislation because it utilizes local newspapers and news websites to provide the public with maximum transparency.”

Beyond allowing the centuries-long American principle of independent and accessible publication of legal notices to survive in an increasingly digital age, the legislation may also help existing print newspapers eventually make the business model transition to online.

“The average reader won’t recognize it, but this is a tipping point in community journalism that will help sustain small, independent publishers across the state,” said Randy Arrington, publisher of Page Valley News in the Shenandoah Valley. The new law, he said, “truly provides another financial lifeline to small town publishers fighting off news deserts in rural areas.”

Arrington and ARLnow’s owner together led the ad-hoc group of online publishers spearheading support for the bills alongside VPA. Both Page Valley News and ARLnow expect to qualify for legal notice publishing later this year.

“There is much doom and gloom in the local news business these days, and deservedly so, but the digital transition need not be a death sentence,” said Scott Brodbeck, owner and publisher of ARLnow, ALXnow and FFXnow. “Allowing legal notices in qualified online-only local publications, and in newspapers dropping print, is a small but important piece of the puzzle for local news surviving and thriving online — in addition to being good public policy.”

HB 264 was introduced by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington). SB 157 was introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) with Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) as co-patron.

“Updating our laws to reflect the continued growth of online news publications makes sense,” Sen. Boysko said in a statment. “To ensure that the online only news publications represent the community accurately, SB 157 sets forth specific standards for online-only news publications. I was happy to carry this legislation which reflects the work done by the Virginia Press Association and the online-only news publications to reach an agreement on what will qualify as a newspaper of record.”

“This law begins to recognize the shift in reader preferences in where Virginians obtain their news,” said Del. Hope. “With the sharp growth in local online news publications, print newspapers are no longer the only source readers turn to obtain information. Legal notices belong in a place that will be seen and, in many communities, that is an online publication.”

Flickr pool photo by Team Rank