AUGUSTA — Annual sales by Maine’s newspapers roughly equal the annual sales of the state’s potato crop, according to an economic impact report commissioned by the newspaper industry.

News executives released the report Tuesday in an effort to convince lawmakers and the governor that even though they may not always like what they read, newspapers are an important part of the state’s economy.

“We want to make sure the policymakers up here, in the governor’s office and in the House and Senate, realize that when you talk about a newspaper, you’re talking about an economic engine, you’re talking about a very important business in Maine,” said Anthony Ronzio, editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel and president of the Maine Press Association.

Today, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee is scheduled to take testimony on three bills that could cut newspapers’ revenue.

Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, is sponsoring L.D. 392, L.D. 940 and L.D. 1445, all of which would change requirements for public notices in newspapers.

In an interview, she said she will offer an amendment to L.D. 940 that would save the state about $250,000 a year, by cutting the annual posting of state rule-making notices in newspapers by half.

State rules are now printed when they are proposed and when they are adopted.

Hayes sees that as an unnecessary and expensive duplication, and wants to remove the requirement that rules be posted after they are adopted.

“At that point in time, the public has no opportunity for input, it’s done,” she said.

With the money that is saved, Hayes wants the state to create a website that’s searchable, archived and available at all hours of the day.

Mike Dowd, editor-in-chief of the Bangor Daily News, said public notices that are published in newspapers help readers keep an eye on what their government is doing.

“We feel that if (public notices) go away from newspapers, this will have a significant negative effect on government transparency,” he said. “To simply put up a government website and say this is adequate notice … is really a reduction in transparency we don’t feel is acceptable.”

The economic report didn’t attempt to estimate what it will cost the industry if notices are no longer published in newspapers. Nor is there an easy way to determine whether people read the notices, Ronzio said.

But he cited statistics showing that, on weekdays, 410,000 people in Maine read newspapers. On weekends, that number is 522,000 — which is 40 percent of the state’s population.

Studies show that 85 percent to 90 percent of people who read newspapers read the classified ads, which is where public notices run.

The Maine Press Association and the Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association hired Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland to study the economic impact of Maine’s seven daily and 40 nondaily newspapers.

The report showed sales in 2010 of more than $154 million and the employment of 1,766 people. That gives Maine newspapers about the same annual sales value as the state’s potato crop, and about half the value of total lobster landings.

Ronzio said the stable revenue from public notices help all newspapers, which is particularly important after two difficult years.

“While we recognize it’s a fiscal issue for the state, it is equally as much of a fiscal issue for our members and our industry,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com