By Matt Moody, Co-Founder of Salina311
Two years ago, we posed a question to ourselves, "Why would private equity firms want to own local newspapers?"
While there isn't a single answer, one factor stood out: legal notices.
These advertisements, which span everything from public meetings and probate proceedings to property foreclosures and name changes, are state-mandated. As far as revenue, they're not simply bread-and-butter for newspapers these days, but more like prime-cut steak. But therein lies the rub. Over the past decade, private equity firms from D.C. and New York have swooped in, reducing once-thriving local newspapers to mere skeletal structures, regurgitating content from afar, and year upon year, draining legally mandated revenue from communities nationwide.
Nearly two years ago, we felt an irresistible urge to challenge these deep-pocketed giants, aiming to halt the drainage of dollars from Saline County.
The journey was fraught with bureaucratic obstacles, as abundant as the potholes scattered across Topeka.
To publish legal notices, several conditions must be met: you must print a physical newspaper weekly for a year, accumulate paid subscribers, gain approval from the United States Postal Service to be classified as periodical class mail, and finally, earn designation as the Official County Newspaper from the County Commission.
After a journey lengthier than we had predicted, we finally met all requirements.
Last Tuesday, the Saline County Commission voted in favor of Salina311, making us the Official County Newspaper. This decision ensured that legal notices would be anchored in a locally-owned entity, thus promoting transparency, accessibility, and crucially, keeping the generated revenue within Saline County.
While we appreciate the praise we've received since the news broke, much of the applause should echo towards to the County Commissioners and County Treasurer, Jim Dubois. Dubois was the visionary who recognized Salina311 as a potential alternative to the Salina Journal. His effort will lead to an approximate 50% reduction in the county's expenditure on legal notices. The County Commissioners, on their part, confronted an issue they could've easily nudged into the realm of "tomorrow’s problems".
(It remains to be seen whether the City Commission will follow suit or attempt to obscure public notices on the city website. We will be sharing much more on this in the upcoming weeks).
For us, this is just a step toward a grander vision of what a community newspaper can and should be.
Our initial aim was to establish a self-sustaining local newspaper, a goal we achieved in April. As the newly appointed official county newspaper, our next ambition is to revive the experience many of us remember from the heyday of the Salina Journal. While there were always critics, I believe most of us who remember, wish it was still around in its former glory.
While technological innovation marches on, changing the ways we stay informed, the principals remain the same: we need a respected, objective, third-party who informs the public of all the important things happening in the community. A watchdog that can hold officials' feet to the fire. We can see what happens without it.
This is Salina311's next goal.
(We are actively recruiting reporters and searching for local executives to steer Salina311 into the future. Please contact us if you're interested in joining our mission).