Saturday, March 18, 2023

In battle to keep public notices, Iowa editor warns 'Without legal notices, you simply will not know what’s going on.'

What has become an annual battle in many state legislatures has higher stakes than ever for newspapers. They "are facing the loss of a key source of cash that many need to survive: legal notices," notes Ray Schultz, a columnist for MediaPost. "Newspapers, their very survival at stake in some cases, are condemning such bills." Here's an example from Iowa:

Art Cullen
By Art Cullen

Storm Lake Times Pilot

Politicians who flourish in darkness are set on undermining a strong and independent network of community journalism by eliminating paid public notices in Iowa newspapers.

A Senate subcommittee on March 8 voted along party lines, with majority Republicans in support, to advance a bill that would allow public notices to be published on a website hosted by the secretary of state and forego posting them in community newspapers.

They tell the public that they want to save money. In private, a senator told one of our folks in the capitol that the backers want to “cancel newspapers.”

Indeed they will if this bill passes. My friends in the Iowa Newspaper Association believe that a third of our nearly 300 community newspapers will fold if paid legal notices — council minutes, school board claims, probate notices and the like — are eliminated.

One of them will be the Aurelia Star, which we operate. The loss of public notices will deal a huge body blow to the Cherokee Chronicle Times and the Storm Lake Times Pilot. We will have to find more than $100,000 per year to make it up. Last year we showed a profit of $2,900 — Brother John is paid nothing and I am paid $900 per month. Maybe we’re bad managers, but we are still here against all odds and supporting 20 employees. But enough about us. Republicans said it’s not their job to make our payroll. (Although they shell out hundreds of millions in subsidies for Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Wells Fargo.)

Okay, we’ll take our lumps, but what about the public? What about you?

This bill will put public notices online at a state website for a couple weeks. After that, forget about finding out how much a county supervisor got paid for hotel expenses. The state will charge to post the public notice. If you think about it, and really want to find out what happened at the Alta-Aurelia School Board meeting, you can start searching the Internet. Currently, you can browse the Times Pilot and see that your spinster aunt’s probate is on file. Nearly 80% of Iowans read public notices in community newspapers.

Without legal notices, you simply will not know what’s going on.

This is not just an Iowa thing. It’s a national push to blot out newspapers and create news deserts where no local source of factual information exists. That vacuum gets filled by social media and political sites posing as legitimate news sources. Where newspapers die, government spending and tax rates rise. So does crime and corruption according to research from the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina. . . . 

The community newspaper is your proxy. People call to ask why, after reading the list of claims, is the street department buying a new snow plow when they got one last year? They walk into the office with a clipping in the wallet they pull out of the front pocket of their bibs of a drainage notice that they think will flood out their low spots. They would not have known were it not for the legal notice. It’s not easy finding out this stuff now — the Iowa court system charges us a fee to look at criminal information online.

You will know even less when a third of Iowa’s newspapers sink.

That’s the way they want it. Keep people in the dark. Resist the audit that shines a light on tax increment financing or the Hawkeye athletic department, which may embarrass a lot of people. Cancel newspapers and live in blissful ignorance. That’s what’s going on.

We’ll get by somehow. They can’t kill us yet. They think we’re cockroaches and we will prove it by refusing to be eradicated. Not as long as you demand that we walk together in the sunshine. Information builds community, secrecy and lies destroy great republics and eat at freedom. We have our opinions but we keep them on this page. We hew to the facts on the front page. Some people can’t handle the truth and are doing their level best to knock us out. Never give up on democracy. We need each other.

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