Newspaper publishers say legislation that recently passed the N.C. Senate would harm “the public’s right to know” by moving government notices from published ads to little-viewed corners of local government websites.
Supporters of the bill counter that newspaper classified-ad pages aren’t getting many readers either, and that the change could save millions of dollars for counties and municipalities.
Senate Bill 343 passed the Senate last month in a 30-19 vote and is now awaiting a hearing in the House, where prospects for passage are uncertain. It would allow municipal and county governments to publish required public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. Those notices include details about public hearings for new developments and opportunities to bid on government contracts.
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The local governments could also host other peoples’ legal notices on their own websites, charging attorneys and others for legally required announcements about foreclosures, seized property and other proceedings. The revenue from those ads would fund teacher-pay supplements.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who’s sponsoring an identical bill in the House, says the notices “have little or no value but generate plenty of money for newspapers. I don’t think government ought to be in the business of subsidizing pretty much anything.”
Opponents of the bill note that newspapers typically have more readers than government websites, meaning that important legal notices there might go unnoticed.
Tammy Dunn, publisher of the Montgomery Herald in rural Montgomery County, said it’s “somewhat ludicrous” to suggest that people would check a government website each week to look at notices.
“For a small rural community newspaper, it is a source of income, but more importantly, it is important for the public’s right to know,” Dunn said.
Dunn’s newspaper and website reaches about 316,000 people over a six-month period, while Montgomery County’s government website was accessed by about 27,000 people over the same time period, she said, citing data from a records request.
Newspaper websites in urban counties also have more visitors than local government websites. The News & Observer’s website has about 3.2 million visitors over a typical three-month period, according to publisher Sara Glines. Wake County’s website had about 466,000 visitors last month, and the city of Raleigh’s website had 271,000 visitors in April.
“The fact is the local newspaper, with all of our products, reaches far more people in the public than any county website,” said Phil Lucey, executive director of the N.C. Press Association.
But McGrady says few newspaper readers seek out the legal notices section, and people with an interest in foreclosures or government contracts will be able to easily access the information on a government website.
“There’s a whole range of things that get published, much of which no one but a group of lawyers has interest in,” he said.
The legislator pointed out that the current legal notice system was designed long ago to replace a “bulletin board in the courthouse.”
“Technology has changed,” he said. “We shouldn’t be wed to a notice system that was designed a century ago.”
Dunn, however, argues that print notices are still needed to reach people in rural communities who lack reliable internet access. “Around here, it costs $75 (monthly) to have internet access,” he said. “It’s an affordability issue for citizens.”
By contrast, subscriptions to Dunn’s weekly paper cost $31 per year. And she says the legal notices are a key component of revenue that funds reporters who keep the community informed about their local government.
“If legal notice advertising was lost, we would probably lose at least one staff person, and smaller newspapers would close,” she said.
Counties and cities, however, say the change in legal notices would free up tax revenue for other purposes.
“Our research staff estimates that the statewide cost for counties to publish legal notices is around $1.7 million,” said Lacy Pate, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
The N.C. League of Municipalities estimated in 2013 that cities and towns across the state spend a total of at least $4 million on ads, spokesman Scott Mooneyham said.
Raleigh’s city government got an exemption to the legal notice requirement in 2003 from the legislature. But the city still uses newspaper ads for many of its required notices, spokesman John Boyette said.
He said the city’s approach differs based on the type of notice. “The city tends to post legal notices for public hearings on its website only, whereby legal notices for land planning and real estate matters tend to be run in the newspaper only,” he explained in an email.
To find a list of upcoming public hearings on Raleigh’s website, visitors go to the city’s homepage, click on “government,” then scroll down to the heading “popular pages” and click on “public hearings.”
This year’s bill doesn’t specify how prominent public notices must be when they are placed on a government website.
Not all local governments are supporting the change. Some have passed resolutions opposing the bill, including Montgomery County’s board of commissioners.
“The results of placing vital information on stagnant governmental websites is counterintuitive to the intent of the longstanding legislation requiring notification in newspapers, and choosing online publication in lieu of local newspapers is incongruous with the responsibilities and obligations under which public officials are elected,” the resolution says.
A separate measure, House Bill 572, is intended as a compromise and has the support of the N.C. Press Association. It would keep current newspaper publication requirements, but the papers would have to post notices on their websites and on a statewide notices website run by the Press Association, and the newspapers would have to offer a discounted rate for notices published more than once.
That competing bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Stephen Ross of Burlington. House leaders had scheduled an initial committee hearing on it last month, but canceled it when the Senate passed its bill on public notices first. McGrady said he’s unsure whether the House will approve the Senate bill in its current form or try to replace it with the Ross proposal.
Asked if a compromise might be possible, McGrady said he’s “reaching out to a member of the Press Association in my county to maybe talk about that when I get home next weekend.”
Attempts to change the legal notice requirements in previous legislative sessions did not manage to pass both the House and Senate.
Senate Bill 343: Would allow municipal and county governments to publish required public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. The local governments could also host other peoples’ legal notices on their own websites, with the revenue going to fund teacher-pay supplements.
House Bill 572: Would keep current newspaper publication requirements, but the papers would have to post notices on their websites and on a statewide notices website run by the N.C. Press Association, and the newspapers would have to offer a discounted rate for notices published more than once.