Public notice ads key to transparency


By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

HSPA will soon begin work on a comprehensive guide to public notice advertising.

The boards of directors for HSPA and the HSPA Foundation agreed to fund the creation of the guide. The goal is to have to it completed and available at before the end of the year.

Many newspaper staffers have voice a desire for a public notice guidebook over the years.

The most recent guide dates to 1989 and was disseminated by the state Board of Accounts.

The office reportedly discontinued the guide for fear of legal liability if it contained an error.

Two Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis students will assist me in the project. Kris Cundiff and Bennett Fuson were my legislative assistants during the 2015 General Assembly.

When the guide is completed, publishers, ad directors and other staff who handle public notices, or legals, as they’re often called, will have a place to go to try to get answers to questions such as:

• How often must a particular notice must run?

• How do I calculate the line rate if my newspaper goes to a different column width?

• Does the newspaper have to give the government-mandated rate for a sheriff’s sale (mortgage foreclosure) notice?

The project coincides with an effort by the HSPA’s Promotional Committee to assemble a public notice advertising toolkit for newspapers.

The tools will vary from suggested house ads to templates for editorials to suggestions on how to better promote the value of public notice advertising.

The Promotional Com­mittee, chaired by incoming board president Chris White, publisher of The Times of Northwest Indiana (Munster), recognizes the need to remind Hoosiers of the democratic principles that public notice advertising is built upon and to remind newspaper personnel about the need to present these notices in a reader-friendly manner.

I’ve heard too many stories from government officials, lawyers and citizens about poor customer service when it comes to public notice advertising.

This has driven some bureaucrats to seek the elimination of publication requirements for public notices.

Such treatment of public notices, coupled with Indiana’s lack of civic engagement, increases the risk of legislators deciding to pull the plug on the publication process.

If newspapers don’t give public notice advertising the respect it deserves, it’s less likely Hoosiers will read the notices or act on information about what public officials are doing or contemplating.

The toolkit will include suggested best practices for newspapers to shine a spotlight on public notice advertising, whether by visual design or referencing notices in coverage of governmental activity.

For example, one newspaper recently did a story on the money belonging to Hoosiers that is held by the state Attorney General as unclaimed property. Millions of dollars is involved.

The newspaper dutifully mentioned the AG’s website where one can search to see if he or she has money held by the state but didn’t mention that the list of people living in that county on the unclaimed property list would be published in the newspaper for all to see.

Public notice advertising is a concept as important to the public’s right to know as the Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act.

HSPA plans to help the Public Notice Advertising Law get the respect it deserves.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.