More Newspaper Bad News: Public Notices Look Elsewhere

Last Updated May 25, 2009 9:54 AM EDT

If classified ads were a backbone of the newspaper business, then the very center of the spine was the public notice. Mandated by laws and courts, these often long recitations of detail were to give official notification, to any who were interested, of the legal intents and actions of both government entities and companies that found themselves under some appropriate regulation. But the town of Apex, N.C. must be giving publishers a shudder, as the town moves at least some public notices to its own web site and out of the local newspaper, saving $13,000.

For many years, state laws have required government and corporations under certain circumstances to have published a notice to the public. All you need do to see is pick up the major local paper and see some of the following:

  • mortgage foreclosures
  • public meetings
  • open bids for government contracts
  • public auctions of seized properties
  • changes to certain types of laws
The notifications have been in newspapers because, so far, courts have deemed the publications as the best vehicles for wide public attention.
Newspapers have long been deemed the best outlets for these notices because they are widely accessible, relatively inexpensive, have a documented list of subscribers and are easily preserved for records, said Shannon Martin, an Indiana University journalism professor who has studied moves to allow Web posting.
If courts began to authorize the use of web sites as a valid way of posting public information, that could lead to an even larger decline in ad revenue for newspapers.

This isn't only happening in newspapers. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been studying the idea of public companies using a post on their web sites to substitute for filing some types of information with the SEC. But the trend is becoming more widespread. The Wisconsin legislature added a provision to the annual budget that would replace state agency placing public notice ads in newspapers with web site postings.

Pennsylvania's House Judiciary Committee is also considering whether to loosen requirements for publishing public notices in newspapers.

Aside from newspaper economics, there are also some significant public policy considerations:

  • Rural and poor communities may have less Internet access, effectively penalizing them and preventing them from having the same access to public notices as more affluent citizens.
  • Requiring people to go to specific web sites, rather than a media or an outlet they regularly use, could effectively reduce the public scrutiny of official activities.
  • A printed public notice becomes one that cannot be changed, versus a web-based notice that could be altered, potentially with little or no notice, and depending on an Internet service like the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive is dangerous because a) it depends on the site being crawled in time for a before and after picture, and b) a site can exclude itself from the service.
On the other side of the argument are governments that want to reduce spending and which claim that the publication requirement is nothing but a subsidy to an industry. Of course, governments subsidize industries all the time in many ways, whether through direct spending or tax policies, which makes you wonder what would happen if that argument were carried through to logical end. Also, if you relax the requirements for state organizations, would their sites in fairness then have to take on publication of private company public notices, since, presumably, one of the concepts is to have all public notices in one place, so everyone knows where to find them?

Public notice image via Flickr user Daquella manera, CC 2.0.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.