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The insurance legals

Jun 8, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

They illustrate fully that the local paper is an effective conduit for the public notices

Last year at about this time, we published the following editorial about the appearance of the voluminous "insurance legals" in our newspaper. Later this month, a committee of the Wyoming Legislature plans to meet in Riverton to discuss continuing to require public notices like these be published in Wyoming newspapers.

If examining public notices in the newspaper is your favorite hobby, then this is the month for you.

The State of Wyoming requires licensed insurance agencies doing business in Wyoming to make public their assets, liabilities and the nature of the insurance operations they conduct in Wyoming.

And the way they require this notification to be made is through Wyoming newspapers.

Wyoming statute requires that the basic information of the insurers "be condensed and summarized showing briefly but intelligibly the capital, assets, liabilities, income, expenditures and business each insurer does within this state."

The "insurance legals," as we refer to them in the newspaper office, are published in June. The law stipulates that the Wyoming Insurance Commissioner "shall cause each summary and certificate to be published for six (6) successive days in a daily newspaper of general circulation within the state, or for six (6) successive weeks in a weekly newspaper of general circulation, and the insurer shall pay the cost of publication upon receipt of a statement from the newspaper."

Here's the boiled-down version: The public must know the basics about the insurance companies licensed in Wyoming. The insurance companies have to publish the simple financial statement six times, and they have to pay for it.

Yes. The Ranger gets paid to run these public notices.

It is common practice, sometimes seeming to border on sport, for certain people to complain about public notice requirements. Often those objections are couched in terms of disdain for the newspapers, which, it is assumed, get rich off of the public notice requirements.

We're glad to set the complainers straight on that score. While it might be tempting for newspapers to jack up their rates for public notices, we do exactly the opposite. In most cases the rate paid by the advertising public entities is only about half of what a normal retail advertiser pays.

Given the time to prepare the ads, verify that they were published, prove that to the advertiser, bill and collect for the ads -- plus the extra paper and ink required to run all of the insurance legals -- it's hardly a windfall for the local newspaper.

We could charge much more, but we don't. The "legal rate" is the lowest available in our newspapers.

Our Wednesday edition, for example, a newspaper that normally would have been 12 pages, swelled to 16 because of the insurance legals. But the revenue received for those four extra pages was only about 60 percent of what it would have been had they been sold to retail advertisers such as automobile dealers, grocery stores or real estate brokerages.

This explanation is by no means a complaint. No one is crying "woe is me" about publishing legal notices. We are compensated for publication, and our costs are covered. But by no means do we get rich off this stuff.

And that is exactly as it ought to be. For more than a century, Wyoming's paid-circulation newspapers have been vital partners with government in informing the citizens of the affairs and actions of government and other entities licensed by the government to do business in our state.

It's easy these days to say that public notices could simply be uploaded to the Internet rather than rendered into the ink-on-paper format. The problem with that is that there would be scant assurance that the general public ever would see the notices.

Honestly, how many citizens would go online, skip over their favorite shopping site, sin site, sports site or cat-flushing-the-toilet video site to peruse insurance company legal notices? Very, very few.

And the fewer people who scrutinize the public's business, the more likely it is for corners to be cut, for loose ends to be left untied, and for the tendrils of impropriety or corruption to grow.

Amid all of the objections and challenges to legal notices, the objectors and challengers have never been able to answer a simple question: "Can you name a better way to expose a wide cross section of the public to this information, with a reasonable confidence that it will be noticed?"

The answer is no. As mass media's "invited guest," the local newspaper still offers by far the best assurance of attention to public notice ads by those who receive them.

We certainly don't claim that legal notices are read by as many people who read local sports, obituaries or the Sudoku puzzle, but we do know that if you want -- or need -- to make something public in a way that is reliable, economical, verifiable and exposed to citizens who already have decided to buy the vehicle in which it is being made public, then you are looking at that vehicle right now.

Legislature, please leave the "legals" alone. You'll be doing a public service.

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