Early and Right| on the Search Fee

     Newspapers have gone through a great shakeout over the last couple decades. They are no longer the cash cows they were.
     But a lot of them, particularly the smaller ones, are still kicking.
     Like the Chico Enterprise-Record, Marysville Appeal Democrat, Hanford Sentinel, Lake County Record-Bee, Monterey County Herald, Porterville Recorder, Red Bluff Daily News, Redding Record Searchlight or the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
     There are some 850 newspapers in California.
     My aunt Carole reads the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the free weekly Good Times and both have published her letters.
     My uncle Bill, who was among the original group of Silicon Valley nerds that started Hewlett-Packard, would find endless material for commentary and amusement in the Monterey Herald and Carmel Pine Cone, his local newspapers.
     And while they may not pack the political punch they used to, those local newspapers are still strong voices in the state. And even though journalism has moved in many big papers to what I call armchair journalism, more dependent on press releases and tips than shoe leather and hustle, some of the small papers still practice the craft as it should be done.
     At the beginning of March, our reporter in Monterey sent me an email with an editorial attached. “I figured you’d appreciate this fervent commentary by our stalwart local daily, without which I couldn’t possibly enjoy my morning coffee,” wrote Ward Lauren.
     He had included an editorial from the Monterey County Herald.
     That small, central coast newspaper was the first to sound the alarm on a fee pushed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, a fee that would in practice prevent reporters from looking through court records.
     “A $10 fee would be devastating to newspapers and other news operations, especially relatively small ones such as The Herald. Newspapers this size review dozens of new court files each month in search of potential stories – many of them about important public business.”
     “Most newspapers and TV stations in California would be forced to cut back significantly on their reporting of local matters,” said the paper, “meaning the public would receive much less information about ongoing court cases and newsworthy civil matters.”
     Having been in the business, and seen the good and bad sides of it, I know that a reporter does not have a petty cash account from which to spend a hundred bucks looking at court files for a possible story. Even in flush times, but all the more so these days, the expense would first have to get OK’d by a news editor who generally would not approve an unbudgeted expense.
     Instead, the reporter would be told to try to get the information some other way, whereupon both the editor and the reporter would move on to another story on the rapidly moving river of news.
     The Monterey County Herald was early and right on a number of points.
     The paper correctly identified the Administrative Office of the Courts as the source of the proposal.
     News stories published later and in other newspapers said the fee was coming from Governor Brown’s financial department, but the governor’s people are simply going along with it. Without actually knowing what they are doing.
     Asked about the search fee, the finance department lawyers talked about the need for consistency in online copy fees, a different beast altogether. Courts regularly charge varying amounts to provide copies of court documents, and they would be surprised to know the finance department believes they should consistently cap the copy fee at ten bucks.
     The Monterey paper was also the first to correctly portray how the charge would work — as a ten dollar tax on every single file that is handed across the counter for a journalist to review. Most other news reports have described the charge as a $10-per-search fee, when in fact the fee amount is a multiple of ten depending on the number of files handed across the counter.
     “It could be argued that newspapers, TV stations and the like are commercial enterprises that should pay their own way,” said the Monterey paper’s editorial.
     “That, however, ignores the reality that legislatures and the highest courts have long recognized that the legal system functions best when the public enjoys meaningful access to court records, and that journalists are attempting to perform a public service much greater than simple retailing of mass data.”
     The newspaper concluded, “The effect of the Administrative Office’s proposal would be to greatly reduce the scrutiny of the legal system while doing little to help with the financial crisis in the courts.”
     After all the reporting Courthouse News has done on this issue since the Monterey County Herald published its editorial, I still could not have said it better.

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