Capital News Service, Virginia Commonwealth University
On top of declining circulation and slumping advertising, add another threat to the U.S. news industry: a national movement to allow local governments to pull legal notices from local newspapers.
In recent years, more than a dozen states have considered legislation letting local governments post public notices on their own Web sites instead of publishing them in the local paper. [See the end of this story for a listing of states and links to the proposed legislation.]
“This is happening across the country,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors.
While newspapers stand to lose money under such laws, press officials say their biggest concern is that the public will lose access to legal notices.
“It’s important to keep them in newspapers because they are independent of government control,” Goldberg said. “Right now, everybody knows where to find them.”
The Virginia Press Association was sent into a frenzy in January when state legislators introduced two bills to revoke the requirement that local governments publish their official notices in local newspapers. Ginger Stanley, the association’s executive director, persuaded members of the General Assembly to reject the legislation.
“I went into detail … trying to explain to them how important a tool public notices are in a sharing and informed citizenry,” Stanley said.
Newspapers are so concerned about the issue that they have formed an advocacy group – the Public Notice Resource Center.
Tonda Rush, counsel to the resource center, said a public notice is information authorized by the government to be distributed to publications, usually independent newspapers, “in a form that is permanently fixed so that it can be archived and its existence proven, and in a place where access by the public is reasonably assumed.”
Public notices include legal ads, announcements of public hearings, agendas for government meetings and calls for bids. They also include government agencies’ financial reports, so the public can see where its tax dollars are going.
Local governments must pay for the newspaper advertising space. According to Rush, public notices make up about 10 percent of a newspaper’s income.
Virginia isn’t the only state dealing with the publication of public notices. This year, the issue has emerged in legislatures from Maine to California. So far, the news industry has successfully staved off proposals allowing governments to substitute the Internet for newspaper publication.
Mark Anfinson, lead attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, says there are three reasons why such legislation keeps surfacing:
-Local governments want to save money.
-Government officials are enamored with technology and the Web and believe the Internet makes them “cooler.”
-At least a few public officials don’t want to share some information.
Supporters of shifting public notices to government Web sites say they simply want to save taxpayers money.
“The issue comes down to, should local governments have the authority to avoid the significant expense of newspaper ads?” said Mark Flynn, a lobbyist for Virginia Municipal League, which represents local governments. “Are the other means of advertising effective? That’s the question.”
His answer is yes. “A lot of young people simply do not read a newspaper,” Flynn said. “They go on their Web sites all the time and would never see current advertising for official actions of a locality because the only place it shows up is a newspaper.”
State legislators have been divided over proposals to allow government entities to use their own Web sites to publish public notices.
In Florida, state Sen. Mike Bennett was alarmed by such legislation introduced in the Florida Legislature. The proposal would cripple newspapers, said Bennett, a Republican who chairs the Senate Community Affairs Committee.
“Many newspapers are going out of business. The financial hit would be devastating. Everybody would be forced to use the Internet,” Bennett said.
Press officials question whether local governments really would save money by shifting public notices from newspapers to government Web sites.
Rush said the costs of running a Web site and maintaining records on the posting of public notices add up.
“It’s too easy to assume that a Web site is going to be cheaper than running an ad in a newspaper,” she said. “In most cases, it probably wouldn’t be.”
Moreover, Anfinson says, a government Web site receives far fewer visitors than a newspaper and its Web site.
“It’s laughable to say a Web site is sufficient,” Anfinson said. “People won’t see them on a government Web site. We don’t want the newspapers to lose the revenue, and we don’t want the public to lose the information.”
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government says that because of the “digital divide” in society, some people won’t see public notices if they’re posted only online.
“Should a locality decide not to publish public notices in the newspaper, citizens who cannot afford to be wired or who are afraid of new technology – which includes many elderly citizens – they will be left uninformed,” said Megan Rhyne, the coalition’s executive director.
But Flynn says residents can access the Internet at public libraries. Moreover, local governments can use “push” technologies to make announcements.
“A locality that has reverse-911 phone calling, for example, could make a broadcast telephone call,” Flynn said.
Stanley fears that if people can’t access or find the public notices online, they will have a poorer view of what their government is doing.
“You have to have a proper check and balance,” she said. “And in order to do that, public notices should be executed by an entity outside the one mandated to provide the notice.”
Some worry not just about the public’s access to public notices but about the future of printed newspapers.
“The whole thought of no printed press scares the hell out of me,” Bennett said.
All of the following links to state resources worked as of August 4, 2009.
Battlegrounds over Public Notices
Here are states that in recent years have considered legislation allowing local governments to publish public notices in venues other than newspapers.
[b]Arizona: Legislation was proposed but failed in 2009.
[b]California: A bill before the California Assembly would repeal the requirement that transportation agencies publish their bid notices in a general-circulation newspaper. The California Newspaper Publishers Association opposes the proposal.
[b]Connecticut: Legislation “to relieve municipalities of costly mandates by authorizing the posting of legal notices on municipal web sites” was tabled in April.
[b]Delaware: Legislation to allow online posting of public notices was considered but failed in 2005.
[b]Florida: Legislation was proposed in 2009 allowing a governmental entity to “use its website for legally required advertisements and public notices.” In May, the proposal was withdrawn.
[b]Maine: The Legislature is considering “An Act To Generate Savings by Changing Public Notice Requirements.”
[b]Minnesota: Since 1998, the Legislature has considered and defeated several bills to eliminate publication requirements for public notices. The Minnesota Newspaper Association has tracked the issue.
[b]Nevada: The Nevada Assembly in April passed a bill allowing governments to publish property tax information on their Web sites instead of in newspapers. The bill is pending in the Senate. Another bill, regarding the publication of school district expenditures, died in the Senate.
[b]New Jersey: A bill from the 2008-2009 session (A1083), would have permitted legal notices to be published on official government Web sites.
[b]North Carolina: A House committee is considering a bill to exempt the state’s larger cities and counties from having to announce public hearings in newspapers.
[b]Pennsylvania: A bill “providing for electronic publication of legal advertising” is pending before the General Assembly.
[b]South Carolina: Legislators are considering a bill to let governments publish public notices on their Web sites instead of in newspapers.
[b]Tennessee: A similar measure is pending before the Tennessee General Assembly.
[b]Virginia: Two bills died in a House committee in February. Both would have let localities publish legal ads and other public notices on their Web sites, on their public access cable-television channels, or via an automated voice or text alert system, instead of in a newspaper. One bill would have applied to all localities. The other would have applied only to jurisdictions with more than 100,000 population.
[b]Wisconsin: In 2007, legislators proposed a bill allowing municipalities to publish legal notices on the Internet instead of in a newspaper. The proposal failed.