Proposed bill would make public notices less visible to citizens, not more
Like similar efforts in the past, a bill in this year’s legislature attempts to move the task of notifying the public of important government actions from privately owned newspapers to a government website.
In a recent op-ed, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Lazzara, leans into recycled myths and half-truths about the newspaper industry while pleading for public support of a so-called “local bill” affecting Onslow County.
The North Carolina Press Association always has and continues to strongly advocate for the public’s right to know, and we believe current law requiring public notices to be published in a newspaper of general interest best serves North Carolinians.
Shouldn’t government actions be viewed by the largest possible audience? Shouldn’t the public have a watchdog to hold elected officials accountable? Shouldn’t public notices be printed in general-interest local newspapers and posted on their websites where the people most affected by disruptive rezoning applications, road widenings, or sewer plants are most likely to see them?
If SB 200 becomes law, the opposite would hold true. The bill would move essential legal notices to a government-run county website only — cutting out independent third-party local publishers to administer this process. It would also cut out citizens without internet access, those who can’t afford access, and the vast majority of citizens that would never bother to visit a government website for important news about their community.
Across the state, the cost of legal advertising represents a tiny fraction of a county’s budget, and in many cases local government passes the cost along to the party that has caused the need for a notice — such as delinquent taxpayers, zoning applicants, and petitioners for road closings.
Moving local government into competition with private businesses damages the private business without benefiting the local government. Publishing and monitoring, and producing affidavits of publication, and other administrative tasks is likely to require hiring extra personnel and investing in new technologies, thus increasing taxpayers’ costs, not decreasing them. The proposition increases the size of government rather than decreasing it. It’s a bad public policy, no matter how you slice it.
In his op-ed, Sen. Lazzara uses the argument of increased transparency in moving public notices to a government website. Moving public notice to a website no one visits is as transparent as mud. Why not simply add these public notices to the county website in addition to and not in replacement of what the local newspaper already does in print and online? That requires a sharing of a link, not a change in the law.
The Republican senator from Onslow also expresses a goal of reaching more citizens — another point we can all agree on. Let’s use Onslow County for argument’s sake: According to local publisher Lockwood Phillips, CarolinaCoastOnline, where readers have access to both the News-Times and its sister publication in Onslow County, the Swansboro Tideland News, last year recorded 4.4 million visitors or readers, of which 1.9 million were unique or one-time visitors, with the remainder, 2.5 million, being return visitors.
Those numbers, not including the print subscribers, for last year alone, are more readers reached in one year than a total for all readers of the paper combined over the 79-year history of this family-owned community newspaper. Just looking at last week, April 9-16, this local publisher saw 102,400 visitors viewing these media websites. That traffic far surpasses any other local outlet, especially the local government website.
The newspapers of North Carolina have led the way to reach as many citizens as possible. Public notices first appear in print, creating a permanent archive, notices are posted on the newspaper’s website, free to view, and they are uploaded to a statewide database of public notices administered by the North Carolina Press Association, www.ncnotices.com. The statewide website is accessed by over 30,000 users and uploads over 12,500 notices, on average, per month. That makes public notices available for anyone across the state to view free of charge.
Publishing public notices in a newspaper of record, which includes posting the notice on that newspaper’s website and the statewide website www.ncnotices.com, accomplishes all of Sen. Lazzara’s goals — at no cost to taxpayers for additional administrative work. The newspapers of North Carolina have more than embraced the digital age and now reach more readers than at any time in our history with important local news and notice of government actions.
These local bills introduced over the past decade bring to mind the pointed Ronald Reagan quip that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”