Public notice isn’t a big deal to the nine South Dakota lawmakers who introduced House Bill 1167, a piece of legislation that would have moved municipal notices from newspapers to websites in many S.D. cities, if it hadn’t been killed in committee. To Brian Hunhoff (photo on left), public notice is absolutely vital.
Hunhoff, a contributing editor at the Yankton County Observer, has been demonstrating just how important it is with “In a Minutes Notice,” a new weekly column based on news culled from meeting minutes and legal notices published in the Observer and other newspapers in the Mount Rushmore state.
“I’ve been meaning to do this series for a long time, but could never seem to find the time,” says Hunhoff. “Then I read the (PNRC) story in the National Newspaper Association’s PubAux about all the public notice battles taking place around the country and decided it would be a good year to finally make time and get it done.”
Hunhoff has already published eight public notice-based columns (see PDFs linked below) and plans to write at least six more in the coming weeks. They include deep dives on particular subjects, like the salaries of local public officials or the frequency and length of their executive sessions. He has also reviewed meeting minutes and budgets from 12 similar-size cities and counties to learn how Yankton County and City of Yankton rank in comparison.
Hunhoff admits the project has required a great deal of research. He has spent many hours studying public notices in Observer bound volumes going back 40 years to uncover trends relating to tax-exempt properties, delinquent taxpayer lists, and highway department spending.
His commitment to the project is particularly remarkable when one considers that newspapering is no longer Hunhoff’s primary job. He was in the newspaper business full-time for 23 years until he sold the Observer in 2002. Current publishers are twin sisters Kathy Church and Kristy Wyland.
Hunhoff has been a part-time contributor to the 40-year-old weekly since selling it. His full-time job now is Yankton County Register of Deeds, where he takes pride in operating the best document archive — he calls it a “library” — in the state. He saves his public notice reporting for evenings and weekends.
Hunhoff says research for the public notice column inspires ideas for editorials. He has written four related opinion pieces for the paper since the first “In a Minutes Notice” story was published in mid-February.
His real goal, though, is to highlight the value of public notices in newspapers and help Observer readers understand their importance. He knows fewer people would read them if they were moved to the Internet — “out of sight, out of mind” he says — and that concerns him.
Hunhoff has used photos of local officials, town halls, a snowplow and a fire truck to illustrate the articles. Over 90 percent of the content is distilled from public notices. “It’s not a lot of fancy writing – just a straightforward presentation of facts gleaned from minutes and other notices,” he said. “I study numbers in a particular area until I find a newsworthy trend. Giving these stories a lead with a news hook has been the key to pulling readers in.”
“Reader response to the stories has been very good,” he added. “People seem to find them interesting and that’s the goal: To help folks understand how much important information is available in public notices in newspapers.”
More than 120 public notice bills have been introduced in at least 37 different states through the first week of March, raising varying levels of concern among newspaper publishers and state press associations around the country. The only states where the danger signs are flashing red, however, appear to be Wisconsin and Missouri.
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.
At least 62 bills relating to public notice in newspapers have been introduced in 25 different states through the first week of February, according to a review of bill-tracking software used by the Public Notice Resource Center. In addition, no fewer than 16 other bills targeting public notice in three states carried over from 2016 and are still active.
Many of the new bills merely add or change requirements for particular categories of notice, but at least 12 states are considering legislation that would move all or most of their official notices from newspapers to websites operated or controlled by government units. The potential that any of these bills will become law varies by state, according to newspaper lobbyists, but nobody is taking any of them lightly.
For over 200 years, public notices have been published in newspapers in part as a consequence of the inviolability of newsprint. Legislators have always understood that when they passed laws requiring notice of official actions to be published in newspapers, a record of the notice would be easy to authenticate and would remain in newspaper archives in perpetuity.
A recent conference of independent researchers provides an excellent reminder that government websites fail miserably at meeting that traditional public-notice standard.
In 2016, the Wisconsin legislature created a study committee to “update and recodify” the statute relating to public notice “to reflect technological advances and remove obsolete provisions.” The committee was charged with considering changes to the statute that would “allow for information to be made available only electronically or through nontraditional media outlets.”
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) mounted an impressive effort to convince the committee that newspapers and their websites were still the right place for public notice. The committee met three times and ended its review on Oct. 10, deciding to recommend only one change to a minor category of notices. We spoke with WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett about the process.
On the final day of 2016, the Associated Press provided subscribing news organizations with a brief story about the “fight against publishing notices in newspapers”. The piece covered Gov. Chris Christie’s stalled attempt to eliminate newspaper notice in New Jersey, and also mentioned new public notice laws passed last year in Arizona and Massachusetts.
“I think with the state legislatures it’s just simply a matter of saving a few bucks,” Kip Cassino, a media analyst at Borrell Associates, told AP reporter Josh Cornfield. “It’s going to keep coming up and I think before the next decade ends, I don’t think you’re going to see the legals in newspapers anymore.”
The public notices in Kentucky’s Georgetown News-Graphic are different. They look like news stories (PDF), designed to capture readers’ attention and promote the kind of serendipity that distinguishes newsprint from electronic formats. News-Graphic Publisher Mike Scogin (photo on left) decided to make this change about a year ago, after reading an issue of a newsletter distributed by newspaper-design consultant Ed Henninger.
It isn’t unusual for politicians seeking revenge for negative press coverage to retaliate by sponsoring legislation that would eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers. It is unprecedented, however, for the press to openly acknowledge the lawmaker’s intentions and to dub the legislation a “newspaper revenge bill.”
Such is the bruising nature of politics in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to move all public notices in the state to government websites was withdrawn from consideration on Monday afternoon. But the newspaper industry isn’t out of the woods yet. The bill remains active and Christie has vowed to make it his “top priority” in 2017. The speaker of the General Assembly has also announced his intention to return to the issue “very soon.”
The director of the same Michigan environmental agency under fire for dismissing concerns about the contamination of Flint’s water supply admitted her department failed to provide sufficient notice of another recent water proposal in the state, according to MLive Media Group.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) director Heidi Grether (pictured on the left) told an air and waste management law conference last week that 42 days on MDEQ’s website “probably” wasn’t sufficient to properly notify the public about a request by Nestle Waters North America to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps in Osceola County. Grether was named director of MDEQ in August after her predecessor was forced to resign in the wake of the Flint crisis.