By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
Newspaper publishers know that the publication of public notices in newspapers is under attack in Indiana and nationally.
The Hoosier State Press Association fought four bills during the 2013 Indiana legislative session that would have moved all or key public notices from newspapers to government websites.
HSPA testified this month against a state Department of Local Government Finance suggestion to replace published notices of budget hearings with government website postings.
Fortunately, none of the four bills became law, and the study committee looking at budget notice publication decided not to take any action on the Department of Local Government Finance proposal.
But that doesn’t mean the 2014 General Assembly won’t see bills filed that would gut the publication of notices.
What can newspapers do to strengthen their position in this fight?
The not-so-simple answer: Give more love and attention to public notices.
Here are some suggestions:
• Treat government agency customers with the same care as the local grocery store or car dealer.
Take the time to make sure public notice advertising is free of errors and runs on the proper date. Government opponents of public notice publication love to tell horror stories about how they had to reschedule meetings because a newspaper failed to publish a notice or because the notice contained fundamental errors.
Department of Local Government Finance Commissioner Micah Vincent testified that government units have difficulty knowing which newspapers to use for public notices. Newspapers should know which units are required to publish in their newspapers and reach out to those units with information about deadlines and costs to make sure the notices are printed on time.
• Point readers’ attention to public notices.
If the legislature deems the information in public notices important enough to require publication, there’s a good likelihood a story could be created from that notice. If so, when you write the story, refer readers to the actual notice in the newspaper and online.
Readers will see not only that notice but others printed on the same page.
If notices don’t trigger a story, consider a front page plug letting readers know where public notices can be found in that edition.
• Don’t bury public notices on your websites.
It shouldn’t take multiple clicks for a reader to reach the area where you display public notices on the web.
Don’t make it more difficult for readers to find this information on your site and drive them to a government website for convenience.
• Put public notices outside your paywall. If we’re arguing for the benefits of publication in newspapers – involvement of independent third party, verifiability of what was published, permanence of the printed record – don’t give opponents the argument that the information isn’t available online without citizens paying a “fee.”
• Help promote Indianapublicnotices.com.
I’ve heard the argument that if a citizens misses the print edition with a particular public notice, they’re out of luck. Not true. HSPA provides a warehouse of statewide public notices at Indianapublicnotices.com.
• Stop calling public notice advertising “legals.”
“Legals” implies something done to fulfill a technical requirement by lawyers. Why should Hoosiers care about “legals?”
Use the correct name, “public notice advertising,” which indicates an item of importance to readers. We want to stress public notice advertising as a tool that Hoosiers can use to keep local and state government accountable.
Never forget the account from Bill Masterson, then-publisher of The Times (Munster). When he suggested a local school superintendent move publication of the district’s notices from a small Lake County weekly newspaper to his large daily, the answer was: “When people see these notices they come to meetings and give us crap. Why would I want more people to see them?”
A testimonial on the effectiveness of publishing public notices, don’t you think?
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.