Community Journalism

What is a ‘newspaper of general circulation’?

Folks in the newspaper business, as well as the public sector, may often come across the term “Newspaper of General Circulation.” It sounds official enough, but what does it really mean?

By law, certain legal notices are required to be published in a “Newspaper of General Circulation.” These may include (but are certainly not limited to)  a probated will, a bad audit at the school district or a public tax sale.

By publishing these notices, the affected party has made an effort to inform the public as to the legal action taking place. Publishers charge for these postings. By charging to run them, they have to run. If they were not paid ads, posting them would be at the discretion of the editor.

And we all know how editors can be.

So, this takes us back to the term “Newspaper of General Circulation.” Though publishing styles and formats for these required ads are as varied as the office that require their postings, the one constant is they must be published in a “Newspaper of General Circulation.”

This became an issue in our office a few months back when a local school district posted some legals with us instead of the competitor down the road in which they had a history of running legal ads.

The posting had to do with some real estate and construction deals. Soon a petition was circulated to host a referendum on the actions the district had in the works.

A lawyer wrote a letter to the district, on behalf of the petitioners, demanding the district cease their already planned project.

There were three arguments upon which the litigator based his demands. The first two reasons were to argued by people not in my line of work, but the third directly affected our standing as a newspaper.

Their lawyer said we weren’t a “Newspaper of General Circulation” in the community.

Granted, the district had only, in the past two years, started sending us their legals instead of the competitor down the road. But that was not my concern. Their business was very appreciated, but even more so unsolicited.

All of this leads the original question: What is a “Newspaper of General Circulation?”

While Texas has no statute defining a “Newspaper of General Circulation,”many states do. As such, the consensus among other state statutes and virtually every state press association in America is that:

A “newspaper of general circulation” is a newspaper that is:

  • issued at least once a week (daily newspapers are included in this description);
  • intended for general distribution and circulation; and
  • sold at fixed prices per copy per week, per month or per year, to subscribers and readers without regard to business, trade, profession or class.
  • Basically, any daily or weekly newspaper that is sold to the public in general is a “newspaper of general circulation.”

A “Newspaper” is defined as:

  • a printed paper or publication;
  • bearing a title or name;
  • reporting local or general news;
  • printing editorial comment, announcements, miscellaneous reading matter, commercial advertising, classified advertising, legal advertising, and other notices;
  • must be at least four or more pages long per publication;
  • published continuously during a period of at least six (6) months, or as the successor of such a printed paper or publication issued during an immediate prior period of at least six (6) months;
  • is circulated and distributed from an established place of business to subscribers or readers;
  • is sold for a definite price;
  • either entered or entitled to be entered under the Postal Rules and Regulations as periodical matter (formerly second class mail); and
  • subscribed for by readers at a fixed price for each copy, or at a price fixed per year.

Free newspapers are not considered “newspapers of general circulation.” Legal advertising cannot be done in free newspapers even if they meet all of the above requirements. So, if a newspaper just shows up in your mailbox at no charge, it does not satisfy the legal requirements for public notices. (except in one very vague stipulation for one county in Texas, but that should be the subject for a separate blog).

Texas has gone as far as issuing an Attorney General’s opinion about Newspapers of General Circulation in 2005, issued by (now) Governor Greg Abbott. The case involved the Harrison County Commissioners Court when a second newspaper popped up in Marshall. The Commissioners wanted to have the discretion to determine in which newspaper to publish.

Attorney General Abbott, in the opinion, defined a newspaper in much simpler terms than those outlined above. The opinion states:

“Texas statutes do not define ‘newspaper of general circulation.’ In Attorney General Opinion JC-0223*, this office said that a ‘newspaper of general circulation’ is a newspaper as defined by section 2051.044, Government Code,  that has ‘more than a de minimis number of subscribers among a particular geographic region, [and] a diverse subscribership.’ Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. JC-0223 (2000) at 2, 10. In that opinion, this office recognized that the factors constituting a newspaper under the Government Code could be determined on an objective basis, see id. at 6, but that the ‘general circulation’ criteria involving subscribership were subjective and involved factual considerations to be resolved by the body that is to arrange for publication of the notice.”

The footnotes of the opinion further explain JC-0223 (noted by the asterisks above) by saying:

*”Attorney General Opinion JC-0223 also said that a newspaper of general circulation is one that publishes ‘some items of general interest to the community.’ Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. JC-0223 (2000) at 2. This criteria is duplicative of item (1) in the definition of ‘newspaper.’”

The summary states that the Harrison County Commissioners had the discretion to choose in which newspaper to publish as long as it met the requirements outlined above.

Based upon this, industry practice and common sense; it became apparent the Whitesboro News-Record is certainly a newspaper of general circulation in the community in question.

We have rack sales and subscribers there. We cover local news and general interest stories there. We:

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

By Austin Lewter

Austin Lewter was named Director of the Texas Center for Community Journalsim in September 2021. He is an Instructor of Journalism and Broadcast at Tarleton State University where he also serves as the faculty advisor of the Texan News Service.
Lewter’s career, prior to education, included newspaper leadership rolls at numerous community papers across North and East Texas.
He holds a BA from Southeastern Oklahoma State University and an MA from Stephen F. Austin State University.