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The Problem with Competition

Ken Graham: From the Publisher

 

April 26, 2018



On April 16, the Columbia County Commissioners voted 2-1 to select the Dayton Chronicle over The Times to be that county’s legal newspaper for 12 months, beginning July 1. (The Times was awarded the contract last year.)

This year, Commissioners Norm Passmore and Merle Jackson voted to select the Chronicle, even though its bid was 61% higher than The Times’ ($7.36 per column inch, vs. $4.50 for The Times).

Furthermore, The Chronicle uses a significantly larger typeface for its legal notices than The Times does, which means the same notice will take up about 20% more inches in the Chronicle than in The Times.

Therefore, a typical notice that runs in the Chronicle next year will cost more than twice as much as it would in The Times.

I’ll spare readers the stages of surprise, anger, frustration, disappointment and resignation that I’ve gone through over the past week. Let’s just say that the idea that two commissioners now think the Dayton Chronicle is worth twice as much money as The Times is a tough nut to swallow.

Yes, the Chronicle has a somewhat higher print circulation in Columbia County than The Times does. But all legal notices published in The Times are available free for anyone to view on our website. (The Chronicle doesn’t have a website.) So print circulation should not be a significant factor in the decision.

This brings me to the subject of competition. I spent a significant portion of my time in college (…yes, partying and various things that went along with that, but also…) studying economics. I was taught, and still strongly believe, that competition among businesses is essential for a healthy economy.

And efficient government also requires that government agencies select among competing vendors to do work for them.

We encourage kids to get involved in sports and other types of competition, like Knowledge Bowl, because we know that healthy competition is a good thing.

But sometimes competition makes people uncomfortable. The Chronicle has been operating in Dayton for well over a century. The Times started covering Dayton and Columbia County about eight years ago (which was before I arrived on the scene, by the way).

The relationship between the Chronicle and Columbia County is kind of like an old marriage. However stale and dull it may look to those of us on the outside, it endures. And the last thing it needs is competition.

Regardless of the reasons commissioners Passmore and Jackson may state for voting the way they did, it appears to me that maintaining that relationship was a big factor. I think they think the Chronicle deserves a large taxpayer subsidy simply because of their history together.

And I know that many other people in Columbia County agree with that position. I’ve heard plenty of people say they don’t like that The Times “moved in” on the Chronicle’s “territory.”

I happen to believe that a vendor to the government should not be treated like a marriage partner. What if the commissioners made all of their spending decisions based on sentiment rather than cost? Guess which direction your taxes would go, and how far.

Last year, after The Times was awarded the Columbia County contract, the Chronicle sued Columbia County, claiming that The Times should not have been allowed to bid. The Chronicle lost. Then the Chronicle sued The Times (I’m not making this up), saying we shouldn’t be allowed to run legal notices in Columbia County at all. The Chronicle lost again. Now they’ve appealed that decision to the state Court of Appeals. We’re still awaiting their decision.

With all of this lawyering, you can see how the Chronicle’s owners feel about competition. It’s ironic that, despite the conservative political views they espouse in print, they’re willing to spend a lot of money to try to avoid having to operate in a competitive environment themselves.

After the commissioners’ decision last week, The Times will move on. We won’t sue the county, and we won’t sue the Chronicle. Rather than wasting our money on lawyers, we’ll keep focusing on providing a quality product that’s crisp and colorful and informative … and as competitive as we can make it.

In the meantime, if you’re a taxpayer in Columbia County and you think the commissioners may not be spending your tax money wisely, I encourage you to use their recent legal newspaper vote as an example when you complain to them.

 

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