It's getting ugly in the Boise publishing world. The arcane debate over the placement of fine-print advertising led the Idaho Statesman to sue the Idaho Business Review in District Court last week.
At issue is the mind-numbingly dull, but lucrative form of advertising commonly known as legal notices.
"Legal notices are a license to print money," said Rep. Steve Smylie who, as vice chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, has seen the law on the matter evolve in his committee.
When a government or private entity embarks on some form of action that requires public notice, they place what's known in newspaper circles as a "legal" advertisement. The ream of text that gets shunted into a newspaper's classifieds section serves as the legal public notice.
For a newspaper, it can mean big money. And the Statesman has the corner on the market, as the newspaper with the most paid circulation in Ada County. (The Business Review's paid circulation is 3,312. The Statesman says its paid circulation numbers more than 64,000.) Most agree that status legally makes them the go-to newspaper for government entities that need to advertise their activities with legal ads, according to Idaho law.
But once the government's ads are placed, there's a scuffle over private legal notices. The Business Review, a business-centric weekly newspaper, has traditionally published a large number of such ads. Sometimes government agencies duplicate their Statesman advertising, and run the same ad in both papers. But IBR publisher Rick Carpenter said that changed earlier this year, when his advertisers began calling him to say they'd been contacted by the Statesman and told that placing legal ads at the Business Review was illegal.
"We got to a point where we had no new legals," Carpenter said.
Carpenter estimates he's lost about $200,000 in legal notices because of the Statesman actions. He added that IBR is "financially solid." The IBR is owned by Dolan Media Company, based in Minnesota. The Statesman is owned by McClatchy Newspapers in California.
In response to BW's request for comment, an assistant to Statesman publisher Mi-Ai Parrish read the following prepared statement: "The purpose of public notices is to insure that vital information of public interest is made available to as many Idaho citizens as possible. The Idaho Statesman and groups representing nearly all of Idaho's daily and weekly newspapers have filed this lawsuit to enforce what we believe was the Legislature's original intent when it wrote existing laws governing public notices. We believe the Idaho Business Review is misinterpreting these laws, and we look to the courts to protect the public's right to know."
Parrish did consent to speak to her own reporters: she said the Statesman didn't sue to generate more revenues, or to take business away from the Business Review.
The David-and-Goliath scenario gets better: The Idaho Allied Dailies Association, which represents many of the daily newspapers in Idaho, is supporting the Statesman's suit.