By Andrew Thompson
The Santa Clarita Valley Signal contested a petition by the Santa Clarita Gazette & Free Classifieds to be adjudicated by a California Superior Court last week, arguing that the Gazette failed to meet established criteria necessary to be deemed a “newspaper of general circulation” and therefore permitted to publish legal notices.
In California, a publication is required to meet certain requirements in order to print legal advertisements such as “doing business as,” trustee, and bankruptcy notices. State law mandates that such notices be published in a local newspaper, and these ads provide a source of revenue for the papers that publish them.
The requirements for adjudication are outlined in the California Government Code, with Section 6000 describing a newspaper meeting the criteria as one “published for the dissemination of local or telegraphic news and intelligence of a general character, which has a bona fide subscription list of paying subscribers, and has been established, printed and published at regular intervals in the State, county, or city where publication, notice by publication, or official advertising is to be given or made for at least one year preceding the date of the publication, notice or advertisement.”
The contest by The Signal argued that the Gazette lacks a “bona fide subscription list,” suggesting that the petitioner’s list of subscribers was insufficient in size and failed to indicate the number of subscribers who are in Los Angeles County or the Santa Clarita Valley; that the Gazette “has not disseminated local or telegraphic news and intelligence of a general character,” but is instead “focused almost entirely on classified advertisements”; that it changed its format and motto two months before filing its petition and changed its name in March of 2012 to aid in its attempt at adjudication; that it contains “thinly-veiled advertisements and press-releases,” generally lacks sufficient news content, and lacks staff dedicated to news content, with the “albeit minimal” content of the Gazette produced by “advertisers… not reporters”; that the editorial “Doug’s Rant” is the kind of content “of interest to one’s Facebook friends”; and that the Gazette “has not been established under the name ‘Santa Clarita Gazette and Free Classifieds’ for one year, as indicated by the use of variations on the “Santa Clarita Free Classifieds” name on the website, e-mail addresses, and social media accounts associated with the publication.
In their reply, attorneys for the Gazette argued that the “contestant’s allegations… [were] patently false” in that they “[cited] cases that cite the wrong statute… with regard to a percentage requirement of the population,” which does not exist under California Government Code Section 6000; that the petitioner had and would “produce its subscriber list showing that the majority of the subscribers are paying subscribers… in Los Angeles County”; that the Gazette “has disseminated local news and intelligence in the county” such as “restaurant reviews, local government board meetings, local news, police activity, and local sports information,” and “has published articles regularly over the last year,” with its use of advertisements “no different than any other newspaper that relies on advertisements for revenue such as The Santa Clarita Valley Signal”; that the Gazette has been published with the title Santa Clarita Gazette & Free Classifieds for more than one year, and that the names of associated websites, etc. are irrelevant to the requirement under Section 6000; that copies of its subscriber list and newspaper would be provided for review; and that the Gazette “carries the same local news as The Signal,” with “Doug’s Rant” being “no different” from editorials found in The Signal and the content of the Gazette “more than [covering] the local and county news… as required under California law.”
The reply also suggested that the contestant was “seeking to keep its monopoly over the legal notice advertising business as the only newspaper in the Santa Clarita Valley… that is a newspaper of general circulation.”
Doug Sutton, Publisher of the Gazette, said he wasn’t sure whether The Signal could view the Gazette as a legitimate threat to its advertising revenue.
“Our intention is not to publish all the legal ads The Signal is able to publish,” Sutton said. Because the Gazette is published weekly, rather than daily, and is seeking only county and not city adjudication, it would be limited in the scope of legal ads it could publish, even if its petition were granted.
“A lot of legal ads have to be posted consecutive days, which is a service we cannot offer,” Sutton noted.
The initial hearing had been set for June 20, 2013, and the contest was entered on June 17, just three days prior. Sutton admitted he was surprised by the timing.
“We were rather disappointed at the late date of The Signal’s counter,” Sutton claimed. “The legal notice had been posted in The Signal by law for nine days… it was a little confusing that they waited until three days before the hearing to petition the court for the hearing.”
Sutton said that he first considered seeking adjudication when readers began to contact him requesting to file “doing business as” notices in the Gazette.
“We thought it would be nice to offer this additional service for people requesting it,” Sutton said.
At the hearing, the judge granted a 90-day continuance to allow the defendant to review more evidence. Sutton said he believes the legal costs associated with the continuance will be a burden to his efforts should he decide to continue.
“Our financial resources are limited, and this almost puts us out of the game,” Sutton said. “Although I haven’t made a final decision, at this point in time I’m not sure which direction we’re going.”
The Signal is owned by Morris Multimedia, Inc., one of the largest privately held media companies in the United States. The company, headquartered in Savannah, Georgia, owns more than 65 publications and 11 television stations throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
Representatives of both Morris Multimedia and The Signal were contacted for this article, but declined to comment, with a representative of The Signal deferring questions to The Signal’s legal team.
The new hearing has been scheduled for September 20, 2013.