Sep 8, 2020 - Economy

"Column" launches to modernize public notices

Animated gif of a newspaper that reads public notice with a blinking cursor

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A group of prominent media veterans are advising a team of millennials who are launching a new company called "Column," which modernizes the placement of public notices.

Why it matters: Public notices have been one of the biggest and most reliable revenue streams​ for local newspapers for centuries. Amid the pandemic, they are becoming more important to local papers that are seeing regular local advertising dry up.

Catch up quick: Public notices are legally required updates from the government to citizens about different types of legal or regulatory proceedings, like ordinances, foreclosures, municipal budgets, adoptions, and public meetings.

Driving the news: Column is a startup company registered as a public benefit corporation. It built a custom tech platform that simplifies the public notice placement process for local newspapers and their clients.

  • The technology significantly reduces operation and labor costs of placing public notices by enabling government officials and lawyers to draft, schedule, and proof their public notices in an online portal, while simultaneously allowing newspaper publishers and their staff to receive orders, manage payment, and generate digital affidavits via the same portal.
  • Column is currently used by a few hundred local newspapers and thousands of government and legal clients that place public notices across nine different states and the District of Columbia.
  • It recently finalized an agreement with The Washington Post to modernize the online distribution of their public and legal notices.
  • It also powers the official statewide public notice website of Colorado and the official public notice site for Kansas.

Details: The company has a full-time team of nine, and is supported and advised by many notable media experts, including David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance and Nancy Gibbs, the faculty director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and the former editor in chief of Time Magazine. It receives occasional informal advice from Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post.

  • The company is advised by several Harvard professors and entrepreneurs, including Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center of Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, and Henry Ward, founder & CEO of Carta.
  • Gibbs serves as an independent director on Column's board.

Column's CEO and founder, Jake Seaton, is the fifth generation of a local newspaper family from Kansas.

  • Seaton grew up as a paperboy and reporter. He dropped out of Harvard in 2015 to help start Quorum, a DC-based public affairs software company. While in DC, he began to meet with newspaper executives about his idea to modernize the public notice business, which his family's newspaper business relies on heavily.
  • Seaton eventually returned to Harvard in 2017 and began to write the first lines of code and incubated the business plan for "e-notice," the beta name of what would go on to become Column. He went on to graduate in 2019.

What they're saying: "​I started this company to solve a problem. The future of public notice is extremely important for access to information in America, as well as the business that has supported my family for the past four generations,” says Seaton.

  • "Jake is not just another Harvard dropout building an app," says Chavern. "He is a rare breed of entrepreneur who, because of his family's history, can empathize with what the news business has gone through at the hands of digital platforms and understands the public policy issues at stake with public notice."

The big picture: Revenue from public notices has become a much larger relative percentage of overall revenue for newspapers because the demand for public notice is created by state law and not by the traditional advertising market dynamics or consumer behavior.

  • This means public notice ads, unlike classifieds, can't be upended by technology giants and are a more steady form of revenue overall. 

Yes, but: There have been many proposals to move public notices onto government websites, in order to save taxpayer dollars.

  • This has become an ongoing source of conflict in state legislatures between the print industry and municipal officials.
  • Traditionally, newspapers have been considered the required destination for public notices because of their consistent distribution and because they are mostly trusted by the local communities they serve. 
  • The newspaper industry argues that moving public notices online wouldn't meet the same standard of transparency, but opponents argue newspapers are dying and don't have the same reach that they used to.

The bottom line: "Everyone who cares about media — and about democracy itself — recognizes how vital it is to save local news. The Column team doesn’t just have a passion for that mission; we actually have a strategy," says Gibbs.

What's next: The company has raised its initial funding from a variety of angel investors and entrepreneurs across the media and technology industries, as well as a couple of early-stage venture funds.

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