A two-state newspaper fight over competitive rates for ads

The Courier-Post is suing 3 government entities that obtained Inquirer discounts.

Posted: June 28, 2007

Is The Philadelphia Inquirer published in New Jersey?

That might depend on the definition. Is the newspaper printed there? Definitely not. Does the paper circulate there? Absolutely.

A Superior Court judge might have to resolve this question soon and, along with it, settle an internecine battle between South Jersey's two biggest newspapers over the seven-figure business of legal advertising.

For decades, Camden County government has printed its legal advertisements in the Cherry Hill-based Courier-Post newspaper.

But this year, the county put the contract up for competitive bid, seeking "discounted" rates. The county printed a request for proposals in The Inquirer, the Gloucester County Times, and twice in the Courier-Post.

The Inquirer submitted the only bid, significantly undercutting what the Courier-Post had been charging.

The county accepted the bid in March, awarding The Inquirer a two-year contract. Other municipalities and authorities in Camden County, as well as Gloucester County, can "piggyback" on the bid, printing their ads in The Inquirer for the same price.

Camden County officials said the move to The Inquirer could save taxpayers more than $1 million.

"I don't think I would be responsible not to take advantage of that," said Ross Angilella, the Camden County administrator. "It's a good thing for the public, and it was done in the good old-fashioned American way of competition."

The Courier-Post, in turn, sued Camden and Gloucester Counties and the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority earlier this month, saying it's illegal for them to run ads in an out-of-state newspaper.

"The point is that any legal notice that appears in The Philadelphia Inquirer could be an invalid notice," said the Courier-Post's attorney, Daniel Haggerty. "Being invalid, it would allow anyone to claim they didn't receive proper notice. There's just a whole plethora of issues."

Camden County and its municipal utilities authority have run legal ads in The Inquirer, but Gloucester County officials are waiting for the courts to rule before placing their ads in the newspaper. The City of Camden, originally a defendant, was dropped from the suit after officials there decided not to publish in The Inquirer, Haggerty said.

In a court filing, Camden County's attorney noted that an April Courier-Post editorial congratulated local governments for seeking competitive, online bids for electricity.

"Apparently, when that same praiseworthy process is used to award a contract to a direct competitor, the Courier-Post's concern for 'driving prices down' . . . becomes a less pressing concern," the filing says.

Haggerty said laws governing legal advertisements are clear. The law says a newspaper must be "printed and published" in New Jersey and sets the rate newspapers can charge for legal advertisements. He said that means The Inquirer cannot legally offer a discounted price.

John O'Brien, the executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, agreed.

He said the standard for determining where a newspaper is published is the location of its principal business office.

"From what I see, the office of publication for The Inquirer is 400 N. Broad St. in Philadelphia," he said.

O'Brien also said the law that sets the rate newspapers can charge - on a sliding scale based on circulation - does not allow a price "in excess or below" that rate.

Camden County Administrator Angilella argues that the law was meant to "establish a ceiling, not a floor to the rates," and that other laws governing public bidding for lower prices should overrule it.

Warren Faulk, an attorney for The Inquirer, said the newspaper demonstrated its presence in New Jersey during its bid.

"Printing and publishing today means a whole lot more than setting type," he said. "We have substantial personnel and property in New Jersey."

The newspaper's South Jersey advertising and newsroom offices, for example, are headquartered on Haddonfield Road in Cherry Hill.

Angilella said The Inquirer and Courier-Post have comparable circulations in South Jersey, and the legal ads will be published on the Internet as well, where there are no boundaries. The Inquirer's 2006 daily South Jersey circulation was 63,444 and Sunday was 131,156. The Courier-Post daily circulation was 67,699 and Sunday was 80,997.

"No one can seriously argue that The Inquirer isn't just as good a forum for legal advertisements as the Courier," he said.


Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

 

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