The New Year again brought with it a flood of new legislation curtailing the role of newspapers as the official source of public notice. Fortunately, none of the new bills appear to be an immediate threat and several have already been killed in committee or face imminent demise.
Here’s an overview of some of the states that have been most active since legislatures returned to work.
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.