The Public Notice Resource Center issued “Best Practices for Public Notice” on Sept. 22 at its first industry-wide symposium on the subject of public notice. The symposium was held in Franklin, Tenn., in conjunction with the National Newspaper Association’s 130th Annual Convention & Trade Show. The brief guide is based on research by PNRC that identified the practices that publishers must follow to protect newspaper public notice and the public’s right to know. PNRC will be working with state press associations to make copies of the guide available to their member publishers.
Many residents in Dorchester County, South Carolina were upset by the lack of notice from government officials about a recent aerial insecticide spray that killed millions of honeybees, according to USA Today. The county sprayed naled, which is harmful to bees and other insects, in order to kill mosquitos that are known to carry Zika.
A local TV news station reported that many people said they had been notified by phone only 10 hours before the spray. County officials responded by noting that they had also posted a notice on the county website two days earlier.
Calaveras County, California is in the throes of tumultuous change. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the mountain community is considering whether to replace the 600 homes destroyed last year by wildfires with medical marijuana farms. The issue has opened a huge debate that has engaged many of the county’s approximately 45,000 citizens and led to a series a ballot measures.
It’s the kind of place that really needs its public notice.
Imagine, then, the anguish of Calaveras Enterprise Publisher Bruce Kyse (photo on left) when he learned his paper had lost the county’s public notice contract to the Valley Springs News, a much smaller competitor that has until now been distributed only in one small corner of the county. To make matters worse, the twice-weekly Enterprise failed to submit a bid and lost the contract because Kyse hadn’t read the notice requesting bids that was published in his own paper.
A lesser man would have raged at the fates and blamed others for his loss. By contrast, Kyse penned an editorial extolling the importance of public notice and pledging to continue to run the county’s legal notifications even without compensation.
“Calaveras County is going through unprecedented change at the moment,” Kyse wrote. “County officials and county residents are grappling with difficult and critical decisions that will chart the course for the county for decades to come. This is not the time to make it more difficult for county residents to obtain important information because of an error by the publisher of the only countywide newspaper. So, until some other solution is found, the Enterprise, at its own cost, will run the county’s legal notices in all its print and digital formats to make sure residents can get prompt and complete access to the county’s legal notifications.
“Public notice is truly a partnership between newspapers and local government,” PNRC President Bradley Thompson told the Michigan Association of County Clerks at their summer meeting on Aug. 22 in Grand Rapids. “We both have mandates to do it properly.”
Thompson (photo on left courtesy of Michigan Press Association), chairman and CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co., used the remainder of his speech to define what proper public notice entails, and to place it in context as part of the three-legged stool of transparent government: Public notice, open meetings and freedom of information.
“The Q&A and the clerks’ comments were much more interesting than my prepared remarks,” Thompson told us after the speech. “My major takeaway from that part of the program is that the clerks do look at us as partners in informing the public. It’s also clear they think we could be doing more to help them.”
The list of requests from the clerks included ensuring that public notice advertisements are always run properly, making them easier to read and find in both print and online formats, and helping them educate other elected officials regarding their responsibilities to hold open meetings and respond to FOIA requests.
“There was some complaining about how much we charge them,” noted Thompson, “but if we do a better job of delivering value, I think that will diminish. It’s certainly nice to have them more as allies than adversaries.”
The national media tend to operate in internet-saturated media environments and often overlook the value of print to key constituencies. As a result, Consumers for Paper Options, an organization funded by the paper and mailing industries, has an uphill battle to be heard as it tries to preserve the ability of the public to read information on paper.
So it was hardly surprising when the Wall Street Journal recently cast the print-vs-digital issue as a collision of lobbyists rather than a consideration of policy. That’s how it reported the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent decision to scrap plans to let mutual funds resort to digital distribution of their reports instead of providing hard copies in the mail. SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced in August that the digital-default option would not be included in a package of sweeping reforms to be proposed by the agency. The comment period for the proposal had included opposition by citizens who did not like being forced to read from a screen and felt printed copies were easier to digest.
WSJ’s take on the story? “In the end, big paper scissored big mutual funds.” (subscription required) The consumer voice evidently counted with the agency. Not so much the Wall Street Journal.
The Dog Ridge Water Supply Corp. was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Friday for failing to collect a sufficient number of samples required as a result of earlier tests that showed the presence of E. coli and coliform bacteria, according to the Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram. The company, which supplies drinking water to approximately 4,500 people in Bell County, purchases its water from the Central Texas Water Supply Corp. The Daily Telegram reports that both Dog Ridge and its supplier have been cited for multiple violations by TCEQ for failing to follow the state’s public notice requirements.
The value of public awareness of water quality has been highlighted by the controversy over the tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, where public notice in newspapers had been eliminated by changes in federal and state rules.
Several newspaper representatives testified last week in favor of public notices in newspapers at the initial meeting of Wisconsin’s Legislative Council Study Committee on the Publication of Government Documents and Legal Notices. The committee was authorized by the legislature to study the state’s public notice laws and make recommendations for changes that “reflect technological advances.”
Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) and Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County Pionier, board member of the WNA Foundation, and board member and government relations chair of the National Newspaper Association, were among those who testified. Former PNRC President Mark Stodder is a member of the committee. Stodder is now president and COO of Xcential Legislative Technologies and a board member of the WNA Foundation. WNA’s weekly newsletter covered the hearing (PDF), which is also available to view as an online video.
The Public Notice Resource Center will identify best practices and share tips on how to secure the public’s right to know at its first-ever symposium on Best Practices in Public Notice on Sept. 22. The conference will be held in conjunction with the National Newspaper Association’s 130th Annual Convention & Trade Show at the Marriott Cool Springs in Franklin, Tenn.
The half-day conference is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. and conclude at 4:15 p.m., immediately prior to the welcome reception that opens the NNA convention.
The symposium will feature a series of presentations and panel discussions based on the official Best Practices in Public Notices recently adopted by the PNRC Board of Directors. The program will help newspapers understand how to increase readership of public notices and to provide the kind of customer service to their clients that will support industry efforts to keep them in print. The symposium will also focus on ad design, legislative strategies and the role of digital notices in furthering the public interest.
More information on the program and how to register is available here on this website.
The Public Notice Resource Center today filed comments urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to deprive the public of newspaper notices relating to the approval of permits under the Clean Air Act (CAA). EPA is considering notifying the public about CAA permits only on a government website.
PNRC was joined in the comments by the 43 other organizations representing newspapers and journalists.
On Dec. 29, EPA announced its intention to reduce the public notice it currently provides in connection with most CAA actions by eliminating the requirement that the notices run in local newspapers near the potential sources of pollution EPA is planning to approve.
“If EPA moves forward with this proposal, it will increase the likelihood that the people who stand to feel the greatest impact from its decisions will be left in the dark until it’s too late,” said Bradley L. Thompson II, president of PNRC. “The Agency’s determination to inform citizens about its plans by posting notices in obscure corners of its website isn’t sufficiently transparent. It is especially unfortunate when pollsters tell us people are suspicious of Washington. Keeping these notices local in places where readers will find them is a good way to combat public cynicism.”
PNRC’s comments note that EPA based its proposal on the mistaken assumption that citizens affirmatively seek public notices and will regularly visit its website to learn about its plans. PNRC also notes that for over 200 years lawmakers have required public notices to be published in newspapers because they offer the best opportunity to reach local, civically engaged readers who are most likely to have a personal interest in the plans and activities described in the notices.
PNRC is a nonprofit organization that provides research and public education materials on the use of public notice in newspapers. It is supported by contributions from newspaper organizations throughout the U.S., including members of the American Court and Commercial Newspapers and most state press associations.
For a copy of PNRC’s comments, click this link to download the document.
Kenneth Little, staff writer for the Greeneville (TN) Sun, has won the 2016 Public Notice Journalism Award for coverage of a nursing home in Limestone, TN, whose Medicare/ Medicaid coverage was revoked by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The story followed publication of an official newspaper notice by HHS in the Sun noting “deficiencies” by the hospital.
The award will be presented March 17 by the Public Notice Resource Center at the National Press Club in Washington DC in conjunction with National Newspaper Association’s Community Newspaper Leadership Summit. Little and his publisher, Gregg Jones, will be present to receive the prize.
Little’s story was submitted by Tennessee Press Association, which also recognized the coverage in its annual newspaper contest.
Bradley L. Thompson II, president of the Public Notice Resource Center, said judges found Little’s coverage compelling and important to readers. The story noted shortcomings of the John M. Reed Health and Rehabilitation Nursing home cited by HHS. Among them were a report from a housekeeper who said she had checked a patient’s vital signs one night because of a shortage of nursing staff, a failure to maintain antibiotics ordered by physicians, and failure to prevent pressure sores. The public notice advised readers that Medicare/Medicaid coverage would cease as of November 28, 2015.
Thompson said he was particularly pleased that the Sun picked up the story because HHS had proposed at one time eliminating the newspaper notices, an action PNRC had criticized as harmful to the public’s awareness of the agency’s activities.
“Reporters hold a compelling trust to help readers find and understand these important public notices,” Thompson said. “The wording of a notice is usually prescribed by regulation to convey precise information. But to put the information in context, the journalist has to develop the background and guide readers to appreciate the meaning of the notice. Little did exactly what newsrooms across America are doing, and must increasingly do, every day.”
Greg Sherrill, executive director of Tennessee Press Association, echoed Thompson’s praise of the work.
“We were thrilled to learn that the public notice story by Ken Little has been chosen as the national winner for the PNRC Public Notice Contest. Little’s use of a public notice as a genesis for his story and the excellent coverage that has followed led us to choose it as the Tennessee Public Notice Contest winner this winter. As this was the first year Tennessee has sponsored such a contest, we were excited to learn that Little’s work has now been recognized in the national contest. We congratulate Little and The Greeneville Sun for outstanding public service work, which highlights the importance of public notices in the community,” he said.
Little is a native of Western New York and received a communications degree from Buffalo State College. He served as editor of a weekly newspaper in the Buffalo area and has also worked as a staff writer at daily newspapers in Oswego, N.Y., Niagara Falls, N.Y., Lansdale, Pa., Utica, N.Y. and Wilmington, N.C. Ken has served as a staff writer at the Greeneville Sun since 2011. He also has experience as a television news producer at the CBS affiliate in Buffalo and provided on-air reports for the National Public Radio affiliate in Wilmington, N.C.