Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
As state legislatures around the country convene this month, we can expect the usual raft of bills to reduce the requirements for public notice – paid advertising from government that tells citizens what it is doing. Many journalists have thought little about this issue, but they need to realize that public notice is the little-known third leg of the platform for open government in America, along with open records and open meetings and courts.
Maryanne Reed of West Virginia University brought the issue to journalists' attention Jan. 3 with an article on Nieman Reports. She began: "Reading public notice ads in the classifieds is about exciting as watching paint dry, but it’s necessary reading for some. In Carmel, California, a 99-year-old woman was able to stop the bank from foreclosing on her house after someone read the notice in the local paper and shared it with her grandchildren. After reading a county financial report in the Ottumwa Courier, an Iowa pharmacist learned that a national pharmacy chain overcharged by five times the price of medicines it supplied the local jail. His complaints led to him securing the contract instead." Dating back to the Colonial era, public notice has served a vital role in informing people about the activities of their government."
Local officials argue for putting public notices online, where the cost would be minimal, but so would the reach. Surveys have shown few people are likely to go to a government website to find public notices, but in a newspaper they encounter them without looking. Reed writes, "While newspapers may still be the best venue, they also have an obligation to make public notices as widely available as possible. More than a dozen states now require that newspapers also publish them on their websites or on state press association sites that aggregate notices."
Most state newspaper associations provide public-notice websites on their own. “It’s a way to answer critics, who say newspapers are still living in the buggy-whip era,” Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Newspaper Association, told Reed. The digital era means papers have fewer journalists, and that makes it all the more important that citizens can serve as watchdogs over government through public notices. And that revenue can keep journalists employed at newspapers, the main finders of fact in our republic.