By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

ONA Trustee Ken Douthit has led a committee looking at ONA’s membership requirements for nearly a year. The board approved the committee’s recommendation for a proposed constitutional change that will go to members for a vote at the annual meeting, which will be held at our convention in Columbus on Feb. 14, 2013.

Our Constitution has generally made ONA newspaper membership consistent with the state laws that define “newspapers of general circulation” for the purposes of eligibility for public notices.  We also allowed free weekly newspapers to be ONA members if they were owned by a paid newspaper that qualified. The state law changed in 2011, opening notice qualifications to free, weekly newspapers that can meet a series of standards designed to ensure that newspapers that receive public notices are legitimate publications that people would welcome in their homes.

Here is a list of the requirements in Section 7.12 of the Ohio Revised Code. The qualifying newspaper must:

  • Have been in business for at least three years immediately preceding publication requirement.
  • Publish at least once a week.
  • Print in English using standard methods and be at least eight pages in broadsheet format or 16 pages in tabloid format.
  • Contain at least 25 percent editorial content that “includes, but is not limited to, local news, political information, and local sports.”
  • Have the ability to add subscribers to its distribution list.
  • Circulate generally by U.S. mail or carrier delivery in “the political subdivision responsible for legal publication or in the state, if legal publication is made by a state agency.” Proof of this can by an annual Postal Service statement or by proof of an independent audit performed within the prior 12 months.

The Constitutional changes mirror these requirements.  The most significant impact is that this will make ONA membership available to legitimate, free-weekly newspapers that are not part of a paid newspaper group.

In addition, the board approved changes that would allow a digital-only local news outlet to join the ONA, although board membership would not be open to such outlets.  Here, too, the applicant would be subject to approval by the board and have to meet a series of similar standards. In other words, the random blogger or fly-by-night website would not be eligible for membership.

Many other state newspaper associations have opened up their membership to digital-only providers, but I believe we have come up with the best standards and smartest dues schedule of any state. Here are the proposed standards for digital-only membership:

  1. Is available to the general public via the World Wide Web
  2. Conducts its business in a professional manner.
  3. Is primarily devoted to local or general news and other editorial content and sells advertising. The online-only publication shall regularly update its content, no less than once per week, with unique news content and not be primarily an aggregator of content or links created by other media outlets.
  4. Does  not primarily serve as a platform promoting the interests and/or opinions of a special interest group, individual or cause
  5. Has been operating as a digital product for three years prior to the application date.
  6. Have a publicized business telephone number and an office in Ohio within 50 miles of the primary community served that is open to the public and where business is transacted.
  7. Abides by copyright laws.

There also is an interim membership category for applicants that meet all requirements except for the “three years in business” standard.

You can see a complete, red-line version of the Constitution where you can easily view the proposed changes by clicking here.  In the “comments” field, you will find some additional background on changes that were made.

As executive director, I hope members will support these changes. I believe these are forward-looking and reflect the way our industry is evolving. The distinctions between print and digital, paid and unpaid, daily and weekly, only are going to get blurrier.  The glue that binds us is a passion to serve our communities and succeed as businesses through the best journalism we can produce. Growth in membership also gives us more influence in our lobbying and government relations advocacy.

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