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Local News

Bill Macfadyen: Dinosaurs Dodder Under the Capitol Dome

Safe in their sinecure, senators wonder whether the Internet will catch on

Last Wednesday, on a day when much of Santa Barbara was fixated on Fossil Media and the future of journalism, I was in Sacramento — in the presence of dinosaurs. The Jurassic juxtaposition could not be more apt.

Since the late 1800s, the state of California has required that legal notices be published in a newspaper of general circulation. These notices — which range from the final official ordinances passed by city councils to the fictitious business name announcements all new enterprises must publicize — typically are priced by the newspapers at rates one would expect from a monopoly: They’re expensive.

For years — no, generations — consumers and government agencies had no choice, since newspapers were, in fact, the dominant news source in most communities. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century and California played a starring role in the creation and development of the Internet, which transformed the way information was delivered.

Over time, municipal governments began launching their own Web sites and discovered that citizens were using them. Simultaneously, newspaper advertising and readership were in free fall, and some communities — this one, for instance — watched in disbelief as their venerable daily papers imploded or worse. A handful of professional, online-only news publications entered the fray, Noozhawk included.

As the Golden State’s financial condition worsened these last few years, pressure increased at the local government level. Every dollar of spending came under scrutiny, and many city and county clerks wondered why they were paying newspapers for something they could do themselves for free. The question caught the ear of Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who came up with AB 715 so they could do just that. Or they could continue to prop up print publishing, if they chose to do so. But the point is, under Caballero’s bill, there would be a choice, not an echo. In March, the Assembly passed the measure, 75-0.

Organizations like the City Clerks Association of California, the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties got behind the legislation. Opposing it was the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which, in the age of Google ads and Craigslist, is understandably concerned about protecting its shrinking piece of the pie.

Elizabeth Larson, founder and publisher of the online-only Lake County News in Lakeport, and I were asked to testify in behalf of the bill before the state Senate Local Government Committee. We were happy to have an opportunity to talk about online news publishing and to describe its growing credibility, accessibility and popularity. We needn’t have bothered.

Every small business owner should take a day out of his or her life to trek up to Sacramento to testify at a legislative hearing. The majesty of our Capitol building never fails to impress me, and to walk its hallowed halls is about as good as it gets for those who cherish California history. But once inside the cavernous committee room, with bored legislators on the dais and a crowd of lobbyists lined up to simply say “I’m So and So with Such and Such, and we support this bill,” well, not only do you get a glimpse of how the sausage is made, you now plainly see why our state is so screwed up.

I’ve often heard that most legislation is decided by each chamber’s leadership behind closed doors. If that’s the case, why bother with the charade? The senators I saw last week could not have cared less that witnesses might have risen at 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Sacramento, or driven three hours from the North Coast. They weren’t interested in any experience or expertise. In fact, they appeared to be listening just enough to determine if someone was saying something that would affirm their previously decided opinion. And lest you think I’m whining about myself, the poor sap of a taxpayer, I’m not. Not entirely. The condescension toward Caballero was just as apparent to this wide-eyed observer.

No offense to older Noozhawk readers (trust me, you’re going to be far more offended in a minute), but I knew we were in trouble when I realized the committee members were old enough to be Caballero’s parents — and I’m being charitable. In reality, the bill was dead on arrival. Four of the committee’s five senators were disinclined to do anything; the other got up and left before the hearing began, never to return. But the committee’s tortured explanations to justify business as usual — however antiquated — are just too good not to share with Noozhawk readers, who I’m guessing are reading this via the Internet. (Names have been withheld to protect the obtuse.)

» The Internet is too new.

» Electronic media will not replace printed newspapers.

» Senior citizens will be disenfranchised because they don’t use the Internet.

» Alpine County doesn’t even have the Internet.

» Community newspapers are the most effective method of communication.

» Constituents do not want 24/7 access to information.

And the statement that encapsulated the day:

» Maybe the bill can be reintroduced in 10 years when Internet technology might be more widely accepted.

Ten years. That’s about the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. No wonder the Legislature can’t pass a budget.

Mind you, I was updating Noozhawk from my phone throughout the hearing. On the other side of the country, meanwhile, we have a president who just may owe his election to his deft use of the World Wide Web. On the other side of the world, an entire revolution is being fueled by Twitter and text messages. We can file our taxes online, apply for passports online, and conduct our banking online. In California, however, there are still limits to what this newfangled Internet thing can do. Let’s give it another decade.

For her part, Caballero was nonplussed by the cold shoulder and vows to try again, confident that history is on her side. At the very least, the actuarial tables are.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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