Tamara Cammet didn’t know her name and her husband’s name were published in the May 8 New Hampshire Union Leader. She doesn’t usually read the newspaper – and, besides, they were in small print, among the 10 pages of legal notices letting readers know that Cammet’s home in East Kingston was due to go up for auction May 30.
The notice – aptly known as a “tombstone ad” — is a legal requirement designed to notify Cammet – and anyone else who is interested – that the bank was selling her home. Cammet didn’t need the notification. Her lender had already sent her numerous notices about the impending foreclosure of her single-family home, which sits on 2.71 acres. She bought it in 2004 for $239,000 with a traditional mortgage. Because of her husband’s job loss and her own health problems, she owed some $13,000 and was desperately trying to work out a deal with her lenders. Cammet, who managed to forestall the foreclosure with a refinancing arrangement, really didn’t appreciate the attempt to publicize the sale.
“I think it stinks,” she said. “Because everybody and your brother knows that you are losing your home to foreclosure.”
But the ad likely wouldn’t even accomplish that, since most people in her neighborhood primarily read the Exeter News-Letter, according to Cammet.
The required notices – which must be published in the newspaper paper once a week for three weeks — does help the Union Leader during a time when all newspapers are suffering from a cutback in overall advertising revenue.
On May 8, for instance, those tombstone ads accounted for about 40 percent of the newspaper’s display advertising that day.
During that first week in May, the weekday editions of the Union Leader ran an average of 931 column inches of legal notices publicizing pending foreclosures, bringing the paper in nearly $25,000 a day.
Compare that to the 60 column inches of such ads averaged by the Concord Monitor during the same period, or the 23 column inches in Foster’s Daily Democrat, or six in the Nashua Telegraph — even though many of the foreclosures being advertised in the Manchester-based newspaper are in areas where the local paper had much greater circulation.
The Union Leader even has more foreclosure ads than are published in The Boston Globe, which averaged nearly 60 inches an issue during the same period, despite the greater severity of the Massachusetts housing crunch.
Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid doesn’t dispute the math, though he does think it would be fairer to count advertising inserts in determining the ad proportions. But he does dispute any implication that foreclosures are keeping the paper alive.
“We are going just fine, with or without the income from foreclosures,” McQuaid said.
Foreclosure advertising is a “cyclical business. We don’t expect them to continue much longer, and we will make up for it other means,” McQuaid said.
According to McQuaid, the majority of the ads that appear in the Union Leader are in the tri-county area where the newspaper’s penetration is strongest. While that is true, about three-fourths of 200 individual ads surveyed in a two-day sample were for homes in the heart of circulation areas of other papers.
Some 45 of the foreclosures advertised in the Union Leader were in the Nashua Telegraph’s circulation area – 55 were for homes in Manchester and the surrounding area, the heart of the Union Leader’s circulation.
Some 32 ads were for auctions on the Seacoast, home of Foster’s Daily Democrat and the Portsmouth Herald, while another 22 were in the Lakes Region, the turf of the Laconia Citizen. Some 13 were for Concord homes and surrounding towns where the Monitor reigns, and 11 were in Berlin and Conway, where the Daily Sun dominates.
It hasn’t always been this way. Before 1977, state law required that that a notice be published in the paper “in the city or town where the mortgage premises or some part thereof are situated, otherwise in one published in the county in which the property is situated.”
But in 1977, in a bill sponsored by then-Manchester Democratic state senator Bob Bossie, the notices instead could be published in “some newspaper of statewide circulation or of general circulation within the town and county in which the property is situated.” That opened the door – some would say floodgates — to the Union Leader.
What prompted the change? Was it the Union Leader itself, as several people in the industry have speculated, off the record, of course?
Bossie, who still practices as a private attorney, doesn’t remember much about the bill, “but it certainly wasn’t intended to assist the Union Leader. If they wanted it, I’m sure I didn’t. I was the type of Democrat they didn’t like.”
David Bradley, a co-sponsor of the bill at the time and represented Hanover in the House, said he was a moderate Republican (“back when there was such a thing as a moderate Republican,” he said), and “believe me, I never once said I did a hell of a favor for the Union Leader — and they didn’t repay me!”
Bradley said the reasoning behind the bill was that “in some towns where there is no local paper, like Haverhill, they would now have that as an alternative.”
The law was amended again in 1991, when someone slipped into a bill concerning the committee of conference an unrelated section that deleted the words “statewide circulation” from the foreclosure notice law.
But that change has had little effect, since the newspaper in which foreclosure notices are published now has only to circulate and not be published in the local area. And lawyers – particularly those who place foreclosure ads in the paper – still feel the law means that the Union Leader was an option – and, by custom, the main option.
This perplexes Geordie Wilson, publisher of the Concord Monitor. According to a recent readership survey, Wilson said, the Monitor has a 65.4 percent market penetration of the Concord area — more than twice that of the Union Leader in the area. And a legal ad in the Monitor costs $16.75 a column inch, nearly $10 less than the Union Leader.
Wilson said the Monitor paper hasn’t historically pursued publication of foreclosure ads, since they only have become a “significant” source of revenue in the last few months.
“I don’t begrudge the Union Leader the business, but it’s puzzling. Maybe someone who wants to spend a ton of money advertising will work with us, the Telegraph, the Citizen and everybody else” in working out an alternative, said Wilson.
What about the Web?
Those who could help clear up the puzzle about foreclosure ad placement aren’t talking, at least on the record. Most of the handful of attorneys who place the vast majority of the ads in the Union Leader are based in Massachusetts, though one — Thomas Haughey of Haughey Philpot and Laurent in Laconia — is from New Hampshire. The major firms from Massachusetts are Harmon Law Offices in Newton; Korde and Associates in Chelmsford; Orlans Moran in Boston and Ablitt Law Offices in Stoneham.
Several of the lawyers said that New Hampshire courts and custom dictated that a statewide paper would be more in line with the intent in the law in New Hampshire.
“It is to wake the guy up whose rights might be taken away from him by the foreclosure. Hopefully, friends and relatives would see it if it was published in a statewide newspaper,” said one attorney who asked not to be named.
“It’s easier to publish statewide. It’s one place to go to and it covers everything,” added Andrew Sullivan, a Bedford attorney who only occasionally handles foreclosures.
McQuaid’s explanation echoed Sullivan’s.
“It’s convenient for the lawyers. And our sales team does a good job working with them and the banks,” said McQuaid.
The legal ads are not the only ones publicizing foreclosures in the Union Leader. There also are display ads for the auctions themselves, which appear in the Thursday edition of the Union Leader.
In the May 8 Union Leader entertainment section, for instance, such ads totaled nearly 400 column inches — more than all of the entertainment ads appearing in that section. While these ads are not required by law, attorneys believe that certain court decisions require them.
There has been some talk among lawmakers of changing the law and simply requiring the placement of legal notices on the state Web site. Several services already do so. Newspapers have generally opposed this, and not just because they didn’t want to lose the ad revenue.
“The idea is that it is broadly advertised for an interested party. If they are hidden on Web site and you make people seek it out, that defeats the purpose,” Wilson said.
Five papers themselves put them on the web. The Union Leader, the Telegraph, Foster’s, Monitor and Laconia Citizen all put them on a Web site provided by the New England Newspaper Association. However, a quick check of the Web site shows that it doesn’t list all of the foreclosure auctions that are in the paper.
Research for this article was provided by Rachel Hughes. Bob Sanders may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.