Friday, April 23, 2021

A local editor pitches for public notices in newspapers, cites rural papers' pandemic performance as evidence of worth

In most states, local governments are lobbying state governments to reduce the requirements for paid public notices in newspapers, which have become a more important source of revenue for papers as their advertising bases have been eroded. Most of the lobbying action goes on in state capitals, but maybe more of it should happen at the local level, especially if local officials appreciate the value of the newspaper. We suspect that a lot of the pressure to reduce public notice comes from urban governments, who have to pay high ad rates, and that rural and small-town governments don't feel such a burden. We need to encourage local officials to speak up for local papers, as Editor-Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle did this month. Then she shared it with readers, who are also potential allies. It's an example to follow. --Al Cross, director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Laurie Ezzell Brown
By Laurie Ezzell Brown

The following message is one I delivered to the Hemphill County Commissioners Court Monday morning, a few days after Judge George Briant briefed the court on several bills filed in the Texas Legislature that might have an impact on local government. Public notices have been under increasing assault in this state for years, and this legislative session has proven to be no different. . . . Judge Briant and the county commissioners were gracious enough to allow me a few minutes in public comment to make a plea for the importance of public notice. I hope you will read this message, and will join this community newspaper and others around the state by contacting your state representatives and encouraging them to keep public transparency and accountability alive. It matters to us, and it should matter to you. 

PUBLIC NOTICES IN NEWSPAPERS do get read. They get read by an informed and aware and engaged public that cares about their community and their country, cares about good government that remains transparent and isn’t afraid to hold their actions up to the light of day, and I might add, cares deeply about their local newspaper, which makes sure they are well-informed about the issues that have the most impact on their lives.

None of those things is possible without a trusted, reliable and independent source of information, and community newspapers are that source. Never has the importance of community newspapers been more apparent than during the last very difficult year, when the coronavirus pandemic has swept this nation. Community newspapers like this one have ensured that their readers have the facts about Covid-19: about the efforts to combat it, the decisions made by public officials and local businesses to guard against its spread, the number of cases that are occurring in their community, and the lives have been lost or changed by it.

Throughout the pandemic, community newspapers have offered a reliable conduit to the public—in print, online, and in social media. It has been used by the medical community to relay timely public health information of urgent concern; by school officials to inform their staff and students about policy decisions that will affect how and where they will safely teach and learn; and by government officials to announce Covid-related decisions that will affect the public’s lives and livelihoods.

The reporting has been arduous, time-consuming and often heartbreaking. It is done at great cost to owners and publishers, at a time when newspapers are struggling from financial losses that resulted from economic slowdown and the pandemic. We are fighting for life, like many other small businesses that provide jobs and paychecks, that pay taxes to enable the good work our government officials do, and that are the heartbeat and life of their communities in so many ways. 

Taking away one more reliable source of revenue that enables us to perform that essential role may well be the death knell for many community newspapers. Far worse, it will be a fatal blow to public transparency and accountability, and an open door to government corruption. Public notices in community newspapers do get read. Their publication is monitored and verified by an independent source, and their content is often examined, explained and expanded upon by the newspaper that publishes it.

UPDATES: The Texas Press Association maintains a central, accessible and searchable online site for the publication of all public notices in this state at Recently, the Newspaper Association Managers created for direct access to 47 public-notice websites operated by newspaper associations across the nation.

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