ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Contrary to a report published last week in the Hillsboro Star-Journal and Marion County Record, the Kansas Press Association has not asked Attorney General Carla Stovall for a legal opinion on whether a newspaper with 15 paid subscribers is eligible under law to serve as an official newspaper.
The Hillsboro City Council appointed the Hillsboro Free Press Digest as its official newspaper May 2. It has 15 paid subscribers.
The plan adopted by the council calls for ordinances and legal notices to be published first in the Free Press Digest at the accepted price, then published for no charge in the Free Press, which is mailed to just under 6,900 in the greater Marion County area, including about 1,630 in Hillsboro alone.
Doug Anstaett, KPA president, said Friday that the association, which includes paid- and free-circulation newspapers among its membership, might ask for the attorney general’s opinion at a later date.
For the time being, though, the executive committee has chosen instead to craft a position statement on behalf of the association.
Once approved by the full board, the statement will be submitted simultaneously to the Hillsboro City Council as well as Hoch Publishing, publisher of the Star-Journal, Record and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, and to Print Source Direct, publisher of the Free Press and Free Press Digest.
“Obviously, it’s not a legal opinion because we’re not lawyers,” Anstaett said.
He thought a final draft of the statement might be ready by the end of this week or early next week.
Anstaett said representatives from Hoch Publishing had asked KPA to solicit an opinion from the attorney general.
“We can’t ignore a request from members to at least take a look at something,” he said. “So that’s what we’ve agreed to do. It’s an issue of real interest to all our members.”
While looking into the issue, Anstaett said Jeff Burkhead, KPA executive secretary, discovered that Stovall’s office had already offered an opinion on a similar question in 1997.
“Our thought was that (the 1997) opinion was sufficient,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s anything new here.”
The 1997 opinion addressed the publication of legal notices from USD 297 (Mankato) in the Jewell County News, a publication produced in Mankato and mailed from Webber, but appeared as an insert in the Superior (Neb.) Express.
The attorney general concluded the state legislature “has ascribed no special meaning to the phrase ‘newspaper of general circulation.'”
Stovall suggested the phrase be given its “ordinary meaning.” A newspaper of general circulation is “one to which the general public will resort in order to be informed of the news and intelligence of the day, editorial opinion and advertisements.”
Stovall said the actual determination of a newspaper’s qualifications must be left to the governing body, in this case USD 279.
Anstaett said Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh was approached about joining KPA in asking for an attorney general’s opinion because the secretary of state deals with matters of open records and because it could expedite a response.
“If the Kansas Press Association asks the attorney general’s office to give us an opinion, they can say no,” Anstaett said. “But they’re not supposed to say no to another state agency.
“We thought, well, we need that. Rather than have (the issue) up in the air, a lot of people want a resolution of some kind.”
Anstaett said he was in an awkward position on this issue because he is the publisher of the Newton Kansan, which prints all three Hoch Publishing newspapers.
“That’s why I believe you have boards for organizations, because you bring a diverse set of ideas together,” he said.
“I have said up front that I don’t want the fact that I’m the printer for one of the parties to influence what we do. This is for the whole association. It’s not just for me.”
All three Hoch Publishing newspapers are full members of KPA. The Free Press Digest is a full member also, but the Free Press is only allowed “associate member” status because it does not ask for paid subscriptions.