By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
Talking to lawmakers about public notice advertising spotlights misconceptions about this important public policy.
One senator asked during a hearing why newspapers don’t print public notices for free if publishers think they are so important.
I’ve heard this remark in past years, but I’ve never have heard it asked of manufacturers of fire trucks or providers of gravel or anyone else who provides a service, important or minor, to government agencies.
The senator misses the point of public notice advertisements.
These are bits of information that the General Assembly over the years decided are important to put into the hands of as many Hoosiers as practical.
Through a paid advertisement, the text isn’t edited or summarized, but runs in full. With payment comes an incentive for the newspaper to make sure the information is published on the dates required without errors.
With a printed product, there isn’t a concern with hacking that would change the information shared. (Anthem can explain how that can happen.)
With a printed listing, there’s a historical record that a government official can show to a disgruntled citizen who later complains that they didn’t have an opportunity to protest a particular action. Notice was given, my friend.
Another misconception for legislators is that the Internet is more effective than newspapers. They say anyone can get on the Internet and find the notices.
The error is assuming that the public will actively search out the multiple local and state government units on a regular basis to find this important information.
Marion County alone has more than 90 local government units. I couldn’t name them, let alone determine which websites I should check on a daily or weekly basis to stay informed about what my elected leaders are doing.
Last year’s American Opinion Research poll of Hoosier attitudes toward the publication of public notices clearly illustrates that the public continues to prefer important government notices be published in local newspapers over posting on government websites.
More precisely, 64 percent – even when told publication costs can be thousands of dollars – said they wanted notices in their newspaper, not on government websites.
Asked if they would be more likely or less likely to read public notices in newspapers or government websites, 46 percent said they would be less likely to read public notices posted only on government websites, compared to only 15 percent who said they would be more likely to read them.
Comparing newspaper readers to a government website’s unique visitors should clearly show the advantages of print over government posting.
The state Department of Local Government Finance showed 4,633 unique visitors to its notice of budget hearing webpages over a six-month period.
This will be the replacement for 3.8 million who read an Indiana newspaper at least once a week if the publication of notice of budget hearing isn’t restored this year by the Indiana legislature.
Advocates of government website posting also don’t address the concern of misbehavior by officials charged with making the postings.
With the attitude expressed by one school superintendent that the only thing that comes from publication of public notices is that citizens attend school board members and give officials “crap” about what they are doing, what incentive is there for government officials to make sure the notices are posted at the right time, contain the right information, and stay posted for the right amount of time?
The answer is none.
And how does one go back later and prove the notice was or wasn’t posted correctly?
The Internet is like a river, what’s in front of you this instant will not be what’s there an hour later, let alone a day, week or month.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.