American newspapers may differ in their points of view, but nearly all claim to maintain strict independence from the state and local governments they cover. Now they’ve found another thing to agree on: that those governments should keep sending business their way.
For at least the past century, newspapers have made a steady profit from public notices, which state laws require governments to print as advertisements in local newspapers with “general” or “wide” circulation. Contract bidding opportunities, zoning variances, road closures and public meetings are all dutifully set down in black and white, generating a stream of green for the publishers. Private citizens, too, are often required to turn to the newspapers to inform their neighbors of activities such as home construction and expansion.
Recently, however, legislators in several states have been reconsidering the laws that specify newspapers as the only appropriate way to disseminate information. States considering changes to their public notice laws include Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.
At a time when fewer people are reading newspapers, the changes make sense. A Pew Research Center study last year found that only half of Americans regularly read a print newspaper, while 61 percent use the Internet to get news. In a recent telephone survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 39 percent of respondents said the loss of their local newspaper would have no impact on their ability to keep up with local information.
The clear solution is for governments to post notices on their own websites, making them immediately available and searchable for residents, whether they read the local paper or not.
Yet, the fact that fewer people are reading newspapers also gives the papers more incentive to argue that public notices should be required to stay in print. The drop in readership and the resulting drop in ad revenue have left many newspapers struggling to stay afloat. The extra cash from public notices is a nice bonus for big-city dailies and a critical lifeline for small suburban and rural papers.
The News-Progress of Sullivan, Ill., gets 17 percent of its advertising revenue from public notices, publisher Bob Best told The Associated Press. Without that income, it would have to lay off two of its 10 employees, and even that would be no guarantee that it could stay in business. In Montana, where I studied journalism in college, every one of the state's 56 counties had at least one weekly newspaper, most of which could not have survived without the boost they received from legally-mandated public advertisements.
Given what they have to lose, newspapers have been quick to fight the proposed changes. And they haven’t been shy about using their pages to promote their cause. The Tennessee Press Association and the Michigan Press Association have both launched campaigns to encourage member newspapers to use editorial content to bring readers on board. Papers elsewhere, including the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, have also denounced the proposed laws. The newspapers portray politicians either as sacrificing transparency to save a few dollars, or as deliberately using specious financial arguments to pull a cloak over government activities.
The truth is that the newspapers are the ones placing money before public access. If you want to know what’s going on, they say, you have to rely on a news source whose raw ingredient is wood pulp. How very 1930s. Many papers’ web sites do not reprint the same advertisements as the daily paper, and many also require users to register, while a few demand payment. In a world of near-universal electronic access, confining legal notices to newspapers is more effective at limiting the spread of information than at promoting it.
The hypocrisy does not do much for newspapers’ reputations as independent outlets for news and opinion, either.
In some cases, newspapers may still be the best way to reach people, and, in those situations, governments just might have the good sense to continue to publish notices in papers, regardless of whether the law requires it. Towns with a significant number of older residents, for example, may reach more people through print than online. But when publishing notices on the web makes the most sense, governments and citizens should not be required to pay to have duplicate information appear in an obsolete local paper. As long as the method of public notice is indeed public, people who want to stay informed will have every opportunity to do so.
Newspapers are no longer the only way, or even the best way, to reach a general audience. Our proud and independent press reduces itself to just another special interest when it argues otherwise. If newspapers want to be watchdogs for the people, they can’t also be going to the Legislature's table to beg for scraps.