Foreclosure notices stay with print papers

State newspaper publishers effectively rallied against a bill in the state Legislature that would have favored a new publisher with roots in the foreclosure industry.

They’ve called off the cavalry in Olympia — Washington’s small-newspaper publishers on Tuesday quashed a Senate bill that would have required all residential foreclosure notices to be published on the Internet, a move that the papers fear could lead to the curtailment or elimination of publication in their publications.

The bill had been introduced Thursday, Jan. 26, by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 1, in Hobbs’ committee on financial institutions, housing and finance. Hobbs took the bill off the calendar Tuesday morning and his staff said it would not be rescheduled.

The quick turnaround came after Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA) Executive Director Bill Will sent a “Legislative Alert” to small-newspaper publishers, asking them to descend on Hobbs and his committee members to block the measure.

The measure is similar to legislation approved in 2009 in Alaska and described in Tuesday's Crosscut article on RIM Publications, "The strange case of Washington's newest newspaper publisher." The bill was written, WNPA told publishers, by “a contract lobbyist on behalf of large foreclosure trustee law firm,” which would describe Northwest Trustee Services Inc., the region’s largest foreclosure-services company, headed by Anchorage attorney Stephen Routh, who also owns RIM Publications. Spokesmen for Routh and Sen. Hobbs did not return phone calls by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Senate Bill 6514 does not actually change the requirement that residential foreclosure notices be advertised in a newspaper within the county where the action is taking place; that language remains intact. What it would do is add a requirement that foreclosures also be required to be published on an Internet site that is described in the legislation in a manner that would appear to give Routh’s companies an advantage.

There is a deep level of distrust on the part of community-newspaper publishers, since Routh began buying up small newspapers in large urban counties in the last two years; he now owns such newspapers in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, and uses the papers to publish his foreclosure notices. Publishers, many of whom have deep roots in Washington’s smaller towns, are worried that Routh’s business model may be bad for community journalism, although he pledges editorial independence for the three papers he owns in Washington, plus papers in Idaho and Hawaii.

The WNPA’s Will admits that Hobbs’ legislation does not remove the requirement that foreclosures be published in newspapers. It is the fear that the Internet requirement would simply be the first step in taking the notices away from the printed media that concerns his members, Will said. “We’re already putting them (the notices) on our newspaper web sites,” he added.

In Crosscut's interview with Routh last week, he stated that he favors a law similar to the Alaska statute for use in Washington and Oregon; he did not state that one was being prepared for introduction in the 2012 legislative session.

Publishers were caught by surprise when Hobbs’ measure appeared, as perhaps Hobbs was caught by surprise when the publishers rode into town Tuesday.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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