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Fannin is lone Texas county excepted from public notice requirement

Question: On 7-13-16 Austin Lewter published a blog about public notices and the definition of general circulation newspapers, and stated that there was an exception for one Texas county.  I am wondering if that county is Fannin and how that exception was granted.

Answer: Thanks for talking the time with my blog about Newspapers of General Circulation. It is a term we throw around quite a bit, but it is important to break it down to truly understand all the implications.

The short answer is, “yes,” Fannin County is exempt from certain parts of the state mandates for public notices. And, yes, it is the only county in the state with such exemptions. The key is they are only exempt from certain requirements. The reasons are quite interesting.

Fannin County serves as the gateway to the Northeast Texas Piney Woods. Its northernmost border is the Red River and, as such, Oklahoma. It is dissected by U.S. Highways 82 and 69 as well as State Highways 121, 78 and 56, all of which make their ways to Interstates well beyond the county line.

Fannin County shares boundaries with six other counties in all directions. The county population was 38,915 in 2010. Of that, 10,127 people reside in the county seat of Bonham. The county saw its peak population of 51,793 in 1900. In addition to Bonham, Fannin County includes eight other cites, four towns and nine incorporated communities.

Like any other bustling frontier county, Fannin has a storied history of newspapers. According to the Texas Historical Commission, numerous newspapers were started during the early years of the county. The Bonham Sentinel, the first to be published, began in July 1846. The Northern Standard was published in Bonham from a month later until April 1847. Other early papers included the Western Argus (1847), the Bonham Advertiser (1849), the Western Star (1853), the Bonham Independent (1858) and the Bonham Era (1859).

After the Civil War, new newspapers included the Bonham News (1866), Honey Grove Independent (1873), Dodd City Spectator (1886), Bonham Review (1884) and Honey Grove Simoon (1884). The Weekly Fannin Favorite was established in Bonham in 1887. It expanded frequency in 1892 and became the Bonham Daily Favorite. The Daily Favorite is no longer publishing. After more than a century, the Favorite shuttered its doors some time ago.

The closing left a decent-sized town (Bonham) without a Newspaper of General Circulation. There are two weekly paid newspapers left in Fannin County. The Leonard Graphic serves the small town of Leonard in far southern Fannin County with a paid circulation of 710 and the Trenton Tribune serves the even smaller town of Trenton with a paid circulation of 772. Trenton, likewise, is in the extreme southern part of the county and has some property across the line in Grayson County.

The absence of the Favorite led to opportunity for a TMC product already in existence in Bonham called the Fannin County Leader. It is a 32-page tabloid mailed with a circulation of 15,500. It offices in Bonham and has been established for more than 40 years. Unlike, other shoppers, it does contain some news and editorial copy; but (like all shoppers) it is mailed free to readers with a Third Class Mailing Permit. Therefore it has no paid circulation. But it is a 32 page product full of ads and some news that is, by all accounts, heavily read in Fannin County… especially without a paid circulation newspaper in the county seat.

You’ll remember, to be a Newspaper of General Circulation, a paper must:

  1. 1. devote not less than 25 percent of its total column lineage to general interest items;
  2. 2. publish once each week;
  3. 3. enter as second-class postal matter in the county where published; and
  4. 4. have been published regularly and continuously much longer than 12 months.

The 25 percent requirement for general interest items is the difference between a newspaper and not an ad circular. To receive a 2nd Class Postage Permit, you must have at least 25 percent news in your product. Otherwise, you file a 3rd Class Permit and are therefore, by most definitions, a shopper. Third class postage is direct mail sent for free to zoned zip codes as ordered by the publisher. As long as you are covering at least 75 percent of the addresses in a ZIP code, you are considered a “Total Market Coverage” (TMC) product. The Fannin County Leader is a free TMC product, not a paid newspaper. But TMC products are audited as well and one that honestly has a circulation of near 50 percent of the total population of the county is doing something right. On the flip side, though, free TMC products don’t have to play by the same rules as paid newspapers. They can print all ads and no news, if they wish. They are not required to print any news or general interest stories.

After the closing of the Favorite, it became evident that more people in Fannin County were reading the Leader than the Leonard Graphic or the Trenton Tribune. This seems evident, as well, based upon the latter two’s self-reported circulation numbers. In 2003, a young lawyer named Larry Phillips won a special election to represent Fannin County in the Legislature. His predecessor, Ron Clark, had been appointed to a federal judgeship by President George W. Bush.

I know Larry Phillips and once discussed the Fannin County matter with him on a sidewalk bench outside of my office in Whitesboro. He is my state representative as well. Phillips said a group of citizens came to him from Fannin County asking if there was any way they could publish their public notices in the Leader as opposed to either one of the weeklies. “To me, it made sense,” Phillips said. “More people read the Leader so the seemed to reason that public notices should be published there… but, I admit, I was a rookie representative and, beyond that [even though he is an attorney], I had no idea what the legal requirements of a Newspaper of General Circulation really were.”

He soon found out, though. After protests from the Texas Press Association and the two weekly newspapers in Fannin County, the Texas House passed Phillips’ bill reverting public notices in Fannin County back to the Fannin County Leader. To be specific though, the law does not mention any publication by name. It simply exempts Fannin County from the requirement to post notices in a publication with a Second Class Mailing Permit. In another words, Fannin County still must publish all of the same notices as everyone else in the state; the county is just allowed to publish those notices in a free publication as opposed to a paid newspaper. The exemption only applies to Fannin County. Right or wrong, the whole narrative has great implications for the public’s right to know and the government’s requirement to publish. What happens when a county seat does not have a newspaper? I hope it’s not a question other counties have to answer in the future.