Thursday, May 10, 2018

Searching public notices nets this reporter big stories

Jim Lockwood
Public notices may seem dry, but they can provide leads to good stories. Jim Lockwood, a reporter at the Scranton Times-Tribune, has won numerous awards for stories he wrote after discovering their genesis in public notices, from estate sales, meeting notices and sheriff's sales of property confiscated in drug seizures. He began searching public notices and clipping out interesting ones as a young reporter in New Jersey, a practice he continues today.

"Reading public notices for story ideas is a skill Lockwood has acquired through years of practice. He can look at most notices and tell, at a glance, if they hold a key to unlocking a good story," Teri Saylor writes for the Public Notice Resource Center. "Lockwood’s sharp eyes and skilled follow-up have earned him several prestigious awards over the years, including PNRC’s Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015, and every public notice award in the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s annual journalism contest since that category was opened in 2014."

And this year he won first place in PNA's contest, and honorable mention in the PNRC competition, for his coverage of municipal issues discovered in the Times-Tribune's public notices. "The notices inspired extensive reporting on a variety of topics including the municipal budget, a delinquent-tax sale affecting 1,900 properties, local government plans to divert federal money allocated for a bridge repair to a variety of street paving projects, and one of his favorites — the sale of the local sewer authority to a water company," Saylor reports.

Some officials complain that public notices are too expensive, and are trying to get state legislatures to cut back on them. Lockwood notes that Scranton taxpayers benefited when the city was forced to publish a list of delinquent tax bills. The city had failed to published them for years, so the notice took up 10 pages. Because people don't like seeing their names in print for delinquent taxes, they're more likely to pay up, Lockwood said. That means fewer people owe delinquent taxes, the city has to spend less on publishing notices, and gets more revenue from back taxes. "It's a great return on their investment," Lockwood told Saylor.

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