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South Dakota Reporter Wins Public Notice Journalism Award

Amanda Fanger, a reporter for Reporter & Farmer, a weekly newspaper in rural Day County, South Dakota, today was named winner of the 2017 Public Notice Journalism Award. Fanger won for a story that scratched below the surface of a public notice (PDF) to reveal a potential embezzlement scheme in one of the small towns within her paper’s coverage area.

Fanger will receive a $500 award and a free trip to Washington, D.C., where she will be honored at a March 16 dinner at the National Press Club.

Jim Lockwood of The Scranton (Penn.) Times-Tribune and Victor Parkins of The Milan (Tenn.) Mirror-Exchange were named winners of second- and third-place, respectively. Lockwood won the Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015.

“There were many worthy entries submitted in this year’s contest, so the winners should be especially proud of their great work,” said PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and CEO of the Detroit Legal News Co., which sponsored the prize. “Reporting on public notices is another way newspapers serve their readers and inform their communities.”

Fanger followed up on an obscure reference to “employee dishonesty” in the minutes of a town board meeting that were published in March 2016 as a public notice in Reporter & Farmer. She discovered that a recent legislative audit of the finances of Grenville, South Dakota (population: 60) had concluded that the town’s former financial officer might have embezzled as much as $72,000. Digging a little deeper, Fanger learned the same person was being prosecuted for using a stolen credit card.

“In the space of the three pages containing her entry, Fanger had five bylines and a photo credit, making her enterprise in delving below the surface of the official notice even more impressive,” said the judges who made the selection. They also noted that the citizens of Day County might never have learned about the embezzlement allegations if Fanger hadn’t read the notice in her paper and taken the extra step to get the real story.

“No newspaper, no matter how big, can make it to every public meeting in its coverage area,” said Reporter & Farmer Co-Publisher John Suhr in an editorial published in the same issue (PDF) as Fanger’s story. “It is because of public notices, however, that we are able to see their actions and follow up to help explain to the taxpayers what their board is doing.”

Jim Lockwood’s entry included more than a dozen articles published in the Times-Tribune in 2015, in which he used public notices as sources for his reporting, including stories about infrastructure financing, specialty taxes, home foreclosure blight, rental-unit registries, tax sales, grant requests, cell-antenna disputes and fair-housing requirements.

Lockwood is “the quintessential example of a journalist who scours public notices to report stories that would otherwise remain hidden,” said the judges. “Through a combination of reportorial tenacity and generous applications of elbow grease, he uses the notices published in his paper to report stories that help Scranton residents understand a myriad of issues important to the development of their city. It is no overstatement to suggest that Lockwood is a public notice wizard whose work provides a veritable lesson in how a city is managed.”

In addition to being a previous winner of the national Public Notice Journalism Award, Lockwood has won the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s public notice reporting contest for the last three years.

Victor Parkins’ story was based on a public notice placed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announcing that a local nursing home was out of compliance with its requirements. Within a month of the publication of his story, the health care provider had been fined over $2 million by federal and state officials and was making plans to transfer residents to other facilities. “Parkin made the connection between the original notice and the ultimate fate of the nursing home to produce well-reported and well-sourced coverage of this important story,” said the judges.

Serving as the judges this year were David Jackson, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter of the Chicago Tribune; Marc Karlinsky, editor of the Chicago Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer; and Charles Whitaker, associate dean and journalism professor of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The Public Notice Journalism Award was established in 2013 by the Public Notice Resource Center, a consortium of newspaper organizations supporting public notice. The award is intended to encourage journalists to incorporate public notices into their reporting.

California Governor Signs Law Redefining Public Notice Jurisdictions

california_flagCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown signed an omnibus bill on Sept. 27 that included comprehensive changes to the state’s public notice law. The changes brought clarity to jurisdictional issues relating to the publication of public notices in the state. The issues first became a concern almost 20 years ago, when the state reorganized its judicial system.

According to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which supported the legislation, the new law creates Public Notice Districts to define where local notices must be published. These new geographical designations will replace Judicial Districts, which were eliminated when the state’s trial courts were unified in each county in 1998. The law still requires notices to be published in newspapers of general circulation, and it automatically recognizes newspapers currently adjudicated to accept such notices.

The new law will take effect on January 1.

Q&A: Steve Key, Hoosier State Press Association

Steve Key

The Hoosier State Press Association has become a service bureau for public notices for the Indiana attorney general’s office. PNRC interviewed HSPA Executive Director Steve Key to learn more about the program.
 
PNRC: Steve, please tell us a little about how the program got started.
 
Steve Key: The Attorney General has the responsibility of notifying the public about unclaimed property, like uncashed dividends, escrow balances or property held by courts and other government agencies. In Indiana, the AG was seeking to eliminate the newspaper publication of unclaimed property lists and to replace them with postings to government websites. 
 
PNRC: What was their motivation?
 
Key: Publishing the list was a burden for them. They had to contact 92 separate newspapers and coordinate the publishing of 92 countywide unclaimed property lists. To say the very least, it wasn’t their core competency. From their perspective, it would have been much easier just to post the list on their website.
 
PNRC: So what happened?
 
Key: It all started with a legislative battle where we were on opposite sides. They tried to eliminate their responsibility to run newspaper ads. We prevailed. Afterwards, we sat down with the AG’s staff and offered to relieve them of their burden. They accepted the offer.
 
PNRC: How does the program work?
 
Key: The AG sends us their lists and HSPA publishes them in regional tabloids for insert in newspapers. The tabloids actually provide greater reach for the listed names and draws greater attention to the public notice advertisements as a stand-alone product than they ever received as ads in the classified section. Originally, the lists were distributed in three flights across the state, so that the AG could coordinate with additional advertising. The response when each flight hit the newspapers was so great, that the AG was forced to hire additional telephone operators to handle the crush of calls. That got their attention.
 
PNRC: What happened next?
 
Key: Over the past few years, the flights have expanded from three to five to smooth out the bump in calls to the AG and to eliminate their need to hire emergency part-time help. The AG is now a supporter of public notice in newspapers. In my view, it’s an example of turning an opponent into a proponent.
 
PNRC: My understanding is that HSPA now also serves as a service bureau for the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. Does that program differ in any way from the one with the AG? Can you tell us how?
 
Key: The monthly 92-county ATC meeting notices are merely a placement program for the state agency responsible for coordinating the county hearings. It’s a one-order, one-bill process for the state ATC and they have agreed to pay us a small per notice fee.
 
PNRC: How long have you been doing that program? How is it going so far?
 
Key: We’re into our second year and the ATC attorney recently told me the process is going “great” from their perspective.
 
PNRC: What has been the financial impact of these programs for HSPA? How about your member newspapers?
 
Key: Our members continue to publish the notices and collect the publication revenue. That wouldn’t be true if either the AG or ATC had eliminated the newspaper notice requirement. As to HSPA, we cover our costs with the ATC placements and make a profit from the AG contract — not for the placements, but for the service we do in creating the tabloids and coordinating the printing with one of our member newspapers.
 
PNRC: Have there been any challenges or downside to these programs?
 
Key: Unfortunately, the biggest challenge is with some of our members. We have the occasional newspaper that fails to run the ATC notice when requested, which forces us to scramble to get it run so the meeting doesn’t have to be rescheduled. The second challenge is collecting tearsheets in a timely manner. We’ll have one or two newspapers that don’t send them immediately, which holds up the billing for the month’s 92 placements. That can delay payment from the state, which triggers a credit hold by a newspaper, which requires us to call the publisher to explain the situation so a particular notice can be published on time. 

Customer service can be poor because some papers take public notice advertising for granted and don’t get excited about a $10.50 ad. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that lack of customer service can endanger the entire concept of public notice in newspapers.

Florida Governor Issues Order Requiring Immediate Notice of Pollution Incidents

florida_governor_rick_scott_2Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop new rules requiring public and private facilities “to provide notification of incidents of pollution within 24 hours to DEP, local governments and the general public through the media.” DEP quickly issued an emergency order increasing notification requirements for pollution incidents, as well as a notice of rulemaking to make it permanent after the emergency expires in 90 days. Under the new rules, facility owners must notify “local broadcast television affiliates and a newspaper of general circulation in the area of the contamination.” The rules significantly change the current “patchwork quilt of notice requirements,” according to an attorney writing in the Daily Business Review (registration required).

The governor’s action came in response to the furor raised when DEP for three weeks “kept quiet about a massive sinkhole at a Polk County phosphate operation that dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the (state’s) aquifer,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. Public officials originally defended the secrecy by noting that current law didn’t require the public to be informed about the incident. The governor said he will also propose a law next year to codify the new requirements.

Arkansas Pig Lot Raises Stink with Legal, but Insufficient, Notice

Residents of Mt. Judea, Ark., were surprised to learn recently that their peaceful community is about to become host to a hog farm that will house up to 6,503 hogs. Residents of the town, through a coalition of environmental groups, say that while notices about the development of the C&H Hog Farm may have been legally sufficient, few in town knew about the approval processes.

“What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it,” says Gordon Watkins, a nearby farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, one of the groups in the coalition. “It had been done very quietly with no fanfare and even some neighbors of the property didn’t know about it until after the fact.” Watkins spoke with the Arkansas Times in Little Rock.

The environmental coalition has sued two federal agencies that backed the loan to build the facility, alleging that the Farm Services Agency and the Small Business Administration failed to do adequate environmental assessments and offer adequate public notice. The coalition has also been sharply critical of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the state permitting process that approved the facility, though it hasn’t sued the state so far, Times reporter David Ramsey said.

The notice for the federal agencies was published in an edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette not widely available in the affected area, though there is a local community newspaper in the area.  State law required the ADEQ notice only to be carried on the agency’s website, which it was. PNRC is monitoring the case for possible future action.

Hog farm near the Buffalo River stirs controversy – The Arkansas Times, Little Rock (8.15.2013)
Hutchinson: More Notice Needed On Hog Farm, Other Projects – Northwest Arkansas Online, Fayetteville, Ark., (9.7.2013)
Groups Go to Court to Protect Buffalo National River from Factory Hog Farm Waste – press release (8.6.2013) | A copy of the lawsuit is here
What are surrounding states doing regarding public notice?