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Could Trenton political machinations hurt community newspapers such as Collingswood's weekly Retrospect?

Publishers and others cry foul over legislation to drop requirement for publishing legal ads in newspapers

Brett Ainsworth is on deadline.

As owner, publisher and editor of The Retrospect, a weekly newspaper that's been covering Collingswood and nearby communities since 1902, he's got another edition to put out.

And as the New Jersey Press Association's president, he's fighting to stop Trenton from perpetrating an eleventh-hour, fast-track ploy to abolish a requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers.

The measure, which proponents claim would help cash-strapped municipalities save money, could come up for a final vote as soon as Monday; legal notices are a major source of revenue for many print publications, particularly the state's 165 community weeklies.

"It's a quarter of our income," said Ainsworth, whose paper has four full-time employees. "It's almost [equal to] our payroll."

Widely viewed as favored by the unsuccessful presidential candidate, would-be Trump cabinet member, and stupendously unpopular Gov. Christie — who likes to boast about his disdain for the press — the legal ad measure does have some bipartisan support.

It was introduced Monday and approved by two legislative committees Thursday.

Print publication is "basically an anachronism," N.J. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union) told my colleague Maddie Hanna. "Nobody reads that anymore."

I'm not sure where Bramnick gets his information.

Perhaps from the same mysterious, if not preposterous, source of the ever-growing guesstimate, cited by Christie's office, that as much as $80 million annually could be saved by publishing legal notices online.

More realistic, alas, is the prospect that ending the print publication requirement "will lead to layoffs at just about every paper in the state," George White, the press association's executive director, warned Wednesday in a Newark Star-Ledger guest column.

"Sadly, a good number of smaller newspapers, particularly weeklies, will have to close their doors," White wrote. "That will not only be a loss to their employees but to the towns they cover, places not covered [online]. In a state without its own television station, less news is bad news."

Absent revenue from legal ads, "we wouldn't be able to be the same paper in size, or in the size of our staff," said Susan Ainsworth, who along with her husband purchased the Retrospect 17 years ago. She's the paper's controller for business and circulation.

The governor "is being vindictive," Brett said, as he scanned page proofs of the Retrospect's Friday edition.

"It's disgusting," added Susan, who was checking the legal ads scheduled for publication. "The legislators are being disingenuous. They're hiding behind a false issue about cost."

The two sat at a pair of desks facing each other in the Retrospect's cheery Haddon Avenue offices in downtown Collingswood, where graphic artist Mark Zeigler worked nearby.

They were putting final touches on a 28-page edition that featured a story and editorial about the legal ad issue on the front cover, along with the tale of a local train ride with Santa Claus.

Being there reminded me of my days working for the weeklies published in Cherry Hill by the Suburban Newspaper Group (RIP).

No other publication covered the South Jersey suburbs the way we did.
Or the way the Retrospect does.

"We're local, local, local," Brett declared.

He and his wife, both 46, grew up in Haddon Township and now live in Haddonfield.

Under their leadership, the Retrospect has grown its subscriber base from less than 3,500 to 5,000; another 500 copies are sold on newsstands each week.
The paper covers nine Camden County municipalities, paying close attention to high school sports as well as the workings of local government.

"At hundreds of meetings we cover," Brett noted, "we're the only media present."

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, (R., Bergen), said in a statement Thursday that abolishing the print publication requirement "is long overdue and \[would be\] beneficial to property taxpayers."

He added that he and other state legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, have been trying to pass such a measure for years.

"When local governments started creating their own websites in the 1990s," said Cardinale, "it became clear that paying for expensive newspaper placements was no longer necessary."

Oaklyn Mayor Robert Forbes, whose borough spends about $2,000 annually to place legal notices in the Retrospect, disagreed.

"People know where to look for them in the paper," Forbes said. "I realize that not everybody reads the Retrospect. But I get a lot of comments or questions from people who do actually read the notices in the paper.
"I never hear from people about something on our website."