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A veteran Washington publisher, who is well-informed on this phenomenon, observed, "When things (the foreclosure market) really started to heat up, Routh realized he could keep more of the money for posting the legals if he owned the paper in which they were printed. So he went shopping for one paper in each county. This way, his company could prepare the legals, get paid for that, and publish them too and get paid again."
Routh has also started the Washington Legal Journal and the Oregon Legal Journal, primarily to print foreclosure notices, although they carry some wire stories and an occasional local story. In Oregon, some editors believe Oregon Legal Journal fails the test of a paper of general circulation; the OLJ published a rebuttal to that charge. By publishing in both the law journals and the small papers, Routh is covering all his bases in terms of legal requirements.
While Routh is an outsider representing a field that seldom enjoys public esteem, he seems to be simply adapting to a law that may no longer make sense. Buyers of foreclosed homes include some ordinary families hoping to afford a home, but more buyers are professionals who earn their income by flipping houses or serving as middlemen. Neither set of buyers is likely to thumb through pages of mind-numbing legal notices looking for a description that fits their needs. Sooner or later, they will find their way to Routh's web site or another like it that is organized to help them navigate the verbiage.
In the West, the biggest site is USA-Foreclosure.com, which Routh owns. The web site currently lists 27,228 properties for sale in 10 states, primarily in the West. California has 10,219 of those foreclosures; among Northwest states Oregon has 5,854; Washington 3,836; and Idaho 1,740. Not all foreclosures, of course, are posted online. USA-Foreclosure describes itself as, "the nation's largest non-subscription based Web site publicizing property scheduled for foreclosure auction."
The requirement for printed legal notices was based on the idea that there should be some way for the public to learn about properties up for auction; this would counter "insider deals" emanating from courthouse or financial politics. Public agencies have also long been required to advertise governmental bids, requests for proposals, and many civil actions, in a newspaper within their county. These "legals" have long been a steady and reliable source of revenue for small weekly papers.
In the past two decades, the Internet has revolutionized journalism and very little remains the same. The business was changing rapidly by 1999 when James Bush described an "odyssey through the backstreets of Seattle journalism" for Seattle Weekly, chronicling some papers that are now long gone or at least under new ownership.
Washington's independent community press grew more corporate when the Canadian press mogul, David Black, brought Sound Publishing to the region and in the last two decades swallowed up most of the small papers in the islands and shorelines around Puget Sound. Some of his 46 Washington papers are better than their predecessors and some are not, but all are operated as journalistic endeavors and hew to standards of the trade. As Sound has expanded, adding four newspapers in the past three months, family-owned papers are becoming rare and any RIM expansion would cut further into their ranks.
Scott Wilson's Port Townsend Leader is traditionally a leader among independent community newspapers; Wilson has concerns about the RIM model. "If they are taking a good community newspaper and their primary purpose is to distribute legals, the risk is that the business of a newspaper is in danger," Wilson told Crosscut. The criteria for Wilson and other quality publishers is the journalistic quality of their papers: editorial independence, resources for the newsroom, and community connections and service.
Routh expresses sensitivity to the concerns. Although he will centralize business operations, he pledges no interference in news operations. RIM is seeking an editor-in-chief to oversee the news side of the five community papers. Routh's employees have health insurance (some did not under previous ownership), a 401-K program, and new computers.
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