By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

The critics of public notice advertising argue that government websites should replace publication in local newspapers.

Not so fast, I say.

Government websites would hide the information in plain sight because citizens don’t routinely check the multiple websites of state and local government to determine what is happening in their community.

They read newspapers – in print and online – for that information.

This year the Indiana Department of Environmental Management decided to use a federal law loophole to ditch public notice advertising for certain Environment Protection Agency-required hearings.

They dropped notices in five Indiana newspapers with a combined daily circulation of 382,000 for posting on the IDEM website.

The average unique visitors total 105 per week for that particular web page.

But critics say newspaper circulation doesn’t translate into people actually reading the newspaper.

Why then was a Lake County school superintendent opposed to moving the district’s public notices from a 700-circulation weekly to the The Times (Munster), a 68,500-circulation daily?

The superintendent told then-publisher of The Times Bill Masterson, in a nutshell: “Why would I want to do that? When we run notices, people come to meetings and give us crap. So why would I want more people to see them?”

A survey by American Opinion Research (released in 2004) found that 73 percent of Hoosiers said local and state governments should be required to publish public notice ads in newspapers.

A follow-up question noted that government units must pay for such notices, but 73 percent continued to say the notices should be published in newspapers.

Officials complain about the financial burden of paying newspapers to run public notice advertising.

They argue that putting it on government websites would be cheaper.

So what is the price of effectively reaching as many of the 4.945 million adult Hoosiers through a medium that they welcome into their homes and businesses – actually pay to have delivered?

Based on estimates presented by the Association of Indiana Counties and taking into account legislative changes over nearly 20 years, taxpayers will spend $2.04 million to place public notices in newspapers this year.

That’s 41 cents per adult resident of Indiana.

For 41 cents, Hoosiers have the opportunity to know what actions county, city, town, township, school, library and special taxing district boards are taking or contemplating.

That also covers notices from state government entities.

I’d call that a bargain.

And I won’t even get into the need for public notices to be disseminated by an independent third party in a format that is verifiable and archivable.

Critics say moving public notices to the Internet is only a matter of time.

Not so fast, I say.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.