Of course, you say. As a former newspaper publisher, I’d hardly be expected to support a proposal in the Idaho Legislature to allow government entities to discontinue printed legal notices in newspapers and just go with the entity’s on-line listing (HB 53). After all, you might add, it’s just about money, as in the newspaper’s money. It failed on a 32 -38 vote in the House on Wednesday.
Dropping printed legals would indeed hurt newspaper revenue. The ‘hit” would hurt weekly publications the most, because they generally operate in small markets have a larger proportion of legals and fewer other revenue options. Some might fold entirely, thus depriving those smaller community citizens of local news.
Ok, you say, but who really cares if we don’t see a write-up on Mrs. Jones’ sister visiting from Minnesota and bringing a lutefisk recipe, corn relish and some hand-woven wooly mittens. Ya sure, you betcha.
But it really is an issue about transparency as well as community news. Think, for a moment, whether you have time to wade through dozens of government websites every day, week or month to learn that there’s a bond proposal on the ballot you didn’t even know about. Or there’s a “call for bids” on a new public structure with the deadline for submitting a bid is just days away. Or that a federal land management agency wants comments on proposed trail closures or grazing restrictions.
Sure, printed legal notice publication may cost a bit, but it’s still the best way to inform the widest reach of local citizens. Even legislators with bristly press relations support openness and see that the measure would lead to less transparency (TN 2/6). Quite a few years ago, when I was publisher of the Times-News, I worked with others to put the ‘online legals´ in place as an option, but not to discontinue printed notice (IC 60-106). The legals rate is set by law, so one publication pays the same as any other. Legal notice is required in many governmental laws and rules, but the rate hasn’t changed.
Also, the proposed bill doesn’t require entities to make and/or keep an historical record of transaction, thus leaving no “paper trail” which can be followed. In issues like zoning and water adjudication, a title of record is essential; leaving this without a clear record isn’t good public policy.
Then there’s the issue of transparency again. Despite the internet, printed legals are often the only way citizens can keep up with such changes in their communities. Many seniors don’t use the internet, so online only legals would inevitably leave out many who own their own homes and follow proposed zoning carefully. And for those who use the internet, there’s already a convenient website established d by the newspapers themselves, which gathers and sorts state legal notices (idahopublicnotices.com) by type and location. So why dismantle or duplicate what’s already being done?
In the past two weeks since the bill’s introduction, many editors and publishers have pointed out various flaws, particularly those dealing with transparency. Jon Brown, editor of the Owyhee Avalanche, Homedale, put it concisely: The “proposal may save a few pennies in taxpayer money. But in the long run such a shift will further erode the public trust in government, further diminish the public’s participation in participatory government, and further threaten the survival of community journalism.” That’s well-stated indeed.
It’s mainly cities and counties who wanted the change, which have the largest portion of legals submissions. But if printed legals were dropped, they’d still have to have someone, at further expense, organize and enter the information. Those costs alone would likely override any savings. The issue comes up from time to time, but once carefully considered, it was set aside. That was the right move yet again.
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com