Attempt to change legal newspaper status fails in committee

By: - February 1, 2023 6:40 pm
The South Dakota Capitol building in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

The South Dakota Capitol building in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

PIERRE — An attempt to change the rules governing the definition of a legal newspaper was defeated Wednesday morning by the Senate Local Government Committee. 

SB 80 would allow free distribution newspapers to publish public notices like local government minutes and bid notices if they had a minimum of 200 paid online subscribers and distributed 500 free copies. That’s the business model of The Dakota Scout in Sioux Falls. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Wheeler, R-Huron, said it was time to recognize the changes in the newspaper industry.

“People are getting their news online more often,” Wheeler said. “We need to adjust our definition of a legal newspaper to accommodate new business models and that’s what this does.”

Doug Cole, the publisher of the Belle Fourche Beacon, a free distribution newspaper, spoke in favor of the legislation.

“If you truly believe in the public’s right to know, isn’t it better to provide free distribution and access to everyone?” Cole asked the committee. 

Lobbyists for the large school districts and South Dakota Municipal League also spoke in favor of SB 80.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Dave Bordewyk of the South Dakota Newspaper Association said SB 80 asked the Legislature to carve out a special exception to longstanding law to favor one or two businesses. 

According to Bordewyk, current postal regulations ensure that a paid newspaper’s circulation is verified while SB 80 offers no accountability for the way the free newspapers would be distributed. “There’s no certainty that anyone received or picked up that free distribution product,” Bordewyk said. There’s “no means of verification or audit of that distribution.”

Justin Smith, a lobbyist for SDNA, admitted to being a fan of The Dakota Scout but questioned the publication’s business model. “There’s no precedence in South Dakota for this business model to be successful at publishing legal notices,” Smith said. 

Smith noted that the 110 member newspapers of SDNA have met the standards set in South Dakota law to be considered a legal newspaper. 

“But rather than adjusting their conduct to satisfy the law, the proponents are asking that the law be adjusted to recognize their business model,” Smith said. 

Also speaking against passage of the bill were Garrick Moritz, publisher of the Garretson Gazette and Mark Watson, editor of the Black Hills Pioneer of Spearfish. 

Wheeler said opponents of the bill wanted new business models to conform to their old way of doing business.

Responding to a question from Sen. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, Joe Sneve, co-founder of Dakota Scout, said there was no way that his publication could conform with the current laws defining a legal newspaper. 

“We chose to give our print product away for free,” Sneve said. “We see price as a barrier to the information. If the idea is to inform the public of what the government is doing, we don’t want to put a barrier to that information, to put a price on it.”

A motion to send SB 80 to the 41st day, a tactic used for disposing of legislation, was endorsed by the committee on a 4-3 vote. 

— This story is provided courtesy of the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.