Public notices source of vital story ideas for newspapers

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Please don’t make the same mistake I did.

When I was managing editor of The Noblesville Ledger, I failed to utilize public notices as a news source.

Public notices contain information that the Indiana legislature over decades has determined was information so vital to Hoosiers that it has required government units pay for publication of the notice so Hoosiers would have the information thrust into their hands.

I took the notices for granted. Rarely did the Ledger do a story based on a public notice and I never recall having a story refer our readers to a public notice published in the Ledger.

Now in my 27th legislative session, I can say I would do it differently if I as given responsibility over a newsroom staff.

An example of public notices that cry out for additional attention are the annual financial reports that local government units will be publishing in your newspaper over the next few weeks.

I would create a protocol with the advertising staff to make sure the newsroom knows what public notices were scheduled for publication. I would review the notices to know what information was to be shared with my readers. I would select at least one notice to be the subject of a story. It might not be worthy of page one, but it would explain what that government unit was doing that called for a published notice. It might be the issuance of bonds. It might be a request for bids. It might be an upcoming notice of a hearing.

The story would be an opportunity for the reporter to ask public officials for more details on the project or policy. It also would be an opportunity to point readers to that public notice and where the other notices are located in that edition of the newspaper.

The story might only be five to seven inches in length or it might be a lengthy front-page starting story. I might box with that story a bullet-point summary of the public notices that a reader could find in that edition.
This isn’t an unreasonable idea. Jim Lockwood of the Scranton Times-Tribune has won multiple state and national awards based on this type of reporting.

Lockwood’s reporting benefits his Pennsylvania community by helping spotlight what local government actions are being taken or contemplated. It also reinforces the value of public notices in a time when public officials and legislators are trying to eliminate publication requirements for public notices. You can read tips from Lockwood here.

Our opponents focus on the accessibility of notices on a website, but ignore the fact that citizens will not find the notices or even know where or when to search for the notices. The beauty of newspaper publication is that while people read stories about Friday night’s high school football game, coverage of the city council meeting or a feature story about a talented neighbor, they find the notices in the pages of that newspaper.

An example of public notices that cry out for additional attention are the annual financial reports that local government units will be publishing in your newspaper over the next few weeks (see the deadlines for publication included below). You’ll have the opportunity to compare spending between townships or towns for 2019.

You can see where the bulk of their expenditures goes. You can talk to township trustees or town board presidents about how the year went compared to the budget they had passed. What differences are there with 2019’s performance to what they’ve budgeted for 2020? What are the challenges they face?

The story may be a positive story of good fiscal management, or story that explains the challenges of maintaining public services when census-numbers are dwindling or costs are increasing due to the Opioid crisis or aging population

Don’t repeat my mistake. Utilize public notices in your routine coverage of your community.

2020 annual local government reports schedule

The schedule for publication of local government unit’s annual reports is as follows:

County
Following the second regular meeting of the county commissioners, the report should be posted and published (IC 36-2-2-19). According to the state Board of Accounts, newspapers should expect those reports in February. The annual financial report output that will meet the requirement of the receipts and disbursement portion for IC 36-2-2-19 is called Cash & Investments Combined, according to the state Board of Accounts. Counties often use the 100R report for the total compensation paid to each of the county officers, deputies and employees.

Townships
Within four weeks after the third Tuesday following the first Monday in February (deadline -Tuesday, March 17), the township trustee is to publish an abstract of receipts and disbursements (IC 36-6-4-13).To avoid squabbles over publication costs, township trustees and newspaper should note that budget lines with $0 amounts do not have to be included in the published report. This will serve to condense the size of the publication.

Cities & Towns
Within 60 days after the end of the calendar year (deadline –Saturday, Feb. 29), the fiscal officer is to publish an annual report of receipts and disbursements (IC 5-3-1-3).
School Corporations
No earlier than Aug. 1 nor later than Aug. 15, the secretary of each school corporation must publish an annual financial report (IC 5-3-1-3).

Other Political Subdivisions
As defined under IC 36-1-2-13.
For those political subdivisions with an annual budget of at least $300,000 and the power to levy taxes, and do not have a requirement to publish an annual report under another statute, an annual report of receipts and disbursements is required to be published not later than 60 days after year end–Saturday, Feb. 29. (IC 5-3-1-3.5).

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