Too many newspapers for too long have taken public notice advertising for granted.
Since the formation of the United States of America, government agencies have been tasked with publishing certain types of information so that the public would have the opportunity to react to what was under consideration – whether it was impacting tax rates, enforceable ordinances or in later times zoning issues.Your clients (government agencies, attorneys and citizens) are required to publish this important information, and in Indiana the state legislature has capped what a newspaper can charge state and local government for these notices.
With the publication required regardless of the service provided by newspapers, I can see where the incentive to give attentive care to public notice advertising has been lacking.
Newspapers can’t afford – literally and figuratively – to continue to take that attitude with public notice advertising.
How many advertising directors have called upon the county auditor or city clerk-treasurer to see what can be done to make the publication of notices easier or more efficient for government officials?
What is your newspaper doing to give public notices a greater profile to readers or are you continuing to give them the same treatment you would a garage sale classified ad?
How many steps is a reader required to do to find public notices on your website?
I understand that the state-mandated formula is a disincentive to either publishing public notices with larger print than the minimum 7-point type or adding art elements would only take up more space with no more revenue, but reader disinterest can lead to legislative change. Would you rather make public notices more readable or lose the honor of being that independent third party conduit that keeps government units responsive to public comment?
A map showing where liquor licenses are being requested; a picture of a fire truck with a bid request, or a small chart highlighting the new fines attached to an ordinance will draw readers into what is now a sea of black ink set in the smallest type allowed by law.
Do you have a process that shares public notices with the newsroom so they have the opportunity to write a story based on the advertisement that also points the reader to the page where the notice is published?
Do you push public notices to be featured in an index or teaser box on the front page?
Are you working with the newsroom to develop a glossary box that can explain frequently found, but arcane, legal terms in public notices so that your readers can understand what the notice is trying to convey?
Do you have basic processes in place that let your public notice advertising clients, whether they are government officials, attorneys or citizens, know that you received the notice and understand when it needs to run and how often? And the process to double-check whether all notices were actually placed in the needed edition?
Just last week, I heard from the director of the state Alcohol & Tobacco Commission, because two weekly newspapers failed to publish their county notices on the needed date. This is an agency that already made one legislative attempt to eliminate the publication requirement – leaving public notice to orange yard signs and government agency website posting.
If newspapers believe it’s role as an independent party with incentive to see that public notice advertising is published in a fashion that reaches the maximum number of citizens in an archivable fashion is valuable, then it’s time newspapers quit treating this paid content like an after-thought.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.