Local officials, newspaper advocates debate cost of public notice ads, effectiveness of online option

From the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Blog

All across the country, local officials are trying to get state legislators to cut back or eliminate requirements to buy newspaper advertising about planned or completed government actions, and move the information to government websites. A microcosm of the phenomenon was on display Wednesday in Kentucky, where a House-Senate committee heard from representatives of schools, local governments and newspaper lobbyists. Most from officialdom said they want to keep taxpayers informed, but objected to the cost of public-notice advertising at a time when their budgets are under greater stress, especially in the state’s eastern coalfield.

“State law requires public agencies, governments and school boards to advertise in the local paper of record notice of meetings, financial statements, pending ordinances and other things like bid proposals,” Ronnie Ellis reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. “The intent is allow the public, taxpayers and voters to see how their local governments and agencies are operating and doing the public’s business.”

But as newspaper circulation has declined and internet use has increased, local officials argue that it would be more efficient and effective to put public notices online “than publishing it in something that seems like an archaic method,” Perry County Schools Finance Officer Jody Maggard told the Interim Joint Committee on State and Local Government. He said his district got more than $1.2 million in taxes on unmined coal last year but this year will get only $117,000.

Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson noted that a recent legislative study found that public-notice advertising is about 1 percent of local government and school-board budgets, and concluded that citizens are more likely to see a public notice in their local newspaper than on a website.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told Ellis, “National surveys have shown people are not all that interested in going to government websites to look for government information. But if they see it in their newspaper, which has a wide range of information on any two-page spread, they encounter a public notice ad that reveals something about government activity they weren’t aware of – that is the virtue of public notice in printed newspapers.”

Thompson said KPA has worked with local officials and legislators to revise public-notice laws to make the advertising less expensive, and is “ready to look into solutions.” But he noted that KPA already puts public notices from its papers onto a website at no extra charge, and said public notice is an essential part of a “three-legged stool” of freedom of information, the other two legs being open records and open meetings.

Posted By Heather Chapman to The Rural Blog at 7/27/2017 11:53:00 AM

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