Two recent national studies clearly indicate that many people read public notices in their local newspapers. The studies also show that newspapers remain a far more effective medium for public notice than government websites.
Susquehanna Polling and Research’s survey of 1,000 U.S. households, commissioned by the National Newspaper Association (NNA), asked two questions of direct interest to policymakers focused on public notice issues. The first question asked respondents to indicate on a scale of one to seven how often they read public notices in their community newspaper, where one equals “never” and seven means “very often”. The mean score of their response was 3.93, with a full 21 percent saying they read notices in the paper “very often” and 81 percent indicating implicitly they read newspaper notices at least some of the time.
The Aug. 30 issue of the (Scranton, Pa.) Times-Tribune featured a story by public-notice reporting wiz Jim Lockwood about the annual “upset sale” of tax delinquent properties in Lackawanna County. The story was prompted by a six-page notice in the paper listing 1,883 properties for which delinquent taxes are owed to the county.
The story includes comments from the public official responsible for placing the notice. Here’s what he told Lockwood, who won PNRC’s Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015 and came in second in last year’s contest.
The winning entry in PNRC’s 2016 Public Notice Journalism contest was Ken Little’s story in the Greeneville (Tenn.) Sun about the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) decision to terminate its provider agreement with the John M. Reed Health & Rehabilitation facility in Limestone.
In this year’s contest, third place went to a similar story — Victor Parkin’s coverage in The Mirror-Exchange of CMS’s closure of Milan Health Care and the $2 million in fines subsequently levied against the Gibson County nursing home by the federal government and the state of Tennessee.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bad public notice bill is safe for now.
The state’s legislature adjourned for the year on Aug. 31 without ever having voted whether to overturn the governor’s veto of HB 205, Sen. Trudy Wade’s (R-Guilford) apparent effort to punish the newspapers in her district.
North Carolina State Senator Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro, photo on left) heeded that advice and last week finally succeeded in passing a bill that makes government less transparent.
After her two previous efforts to move public notice in the state from newspapers to government websites failed, in March Wade introduced another sweeping revision of the state’s public notice laws. When her bill stalled in the House, as it had in the previous legislative session, Wade didn’t give up.
In 2014, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law passed by the Indiana legislature that eliminated newspaper notice of local government budgets. Before the law was enacted, all local government units in Indiana — from cities and counties to libraries and conservation districts — were required to publish their annual budget proposals and estimated tax rates in a local newspaper.
Now they are only required to post them on the website of the state’s Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which was one of the main proponents of the new law.
In a recent article in Columbia Journalism Review, Liena Zagare and Ben Smith argue that local governments should move public notice and other civic advertising from newspapers to local-news websites like Zagare’s BKLYNER.
To buttress their case, they claim that a newspaper in their borough, the Brooklyn Eagle, recently had “three of its 12 pages entirely covered” by advertising designed to “make sure taxpayers see how their money is being spent, and to prevent officials from hiding corrupt deals.” But those three pages of advertising in the Eagle were placed by law firms, not public officials. And its purpose was to provide official notice of courtroom process, not public spending. That’s a pretty glaring mistake. Surely, CJR would want to correct the record, right?
Legislation that would fundamentally alter public notice laws has been introduced in 21 states in 2017, and several of those bills once had real momentum. But with Memorial Day now behind us, 36 state legislatures have already adjourned and not a single one of those formerly worrisome bills is close to passage.
The latest threat to subside was in Missouri, where newspapers had been nervous about two separate bills that were reported out of committee. One would have moved municipal notices to government websites and the other threatened to shift foreclosure notices to websites operated by law firms. The clock ran out on both bills when the legislature adjourned in mid-May.
As we noted last month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t like the newspapers in his state. There’s now evidence to suggest his disgust for print-based local journalism provokes him to stake out irrational positions on public notice bills.
In April, LePage vetoed a bill requiring newspapers to continue posting public notices on their own websites at no extra cost to the state. The veto was counterintuitive but it had an internal logic. LePage doesn’t believe in half measures. He is convinced that newspapers are dying but he’s an impatient man, so he wants to do all he can to hasten their demise.