The newspaper industry has generally strived to maintain a low political profile on public notice issues. Even when notice laws become problematic — fee provisions that haven’t changed in 40 years, for instance — most state press associations have been reluctant to push for change.
“Why poke the bear?” is the way South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA) Executive Director David Bordewyk describes the mindset. It’s the defensive crouch of an industry that has a lot to lose if plans go awry.
At least three state press groups, including SDNA, have had enough with small ball. They’ve decided to “go big” in 2021.
Going big means something a little different in each state. (The states featured in this PNRC newsletter are South Dakota, Florida and Kentucky.”
No newspaper group has had a rougher time defending public notice than the Kentucky Press Association (KPA).
In 2005, the state legislature almost eliminated newspaper notice until Senate President David Williams was talked out of it with 15 minutes remaining in the session, according to KPA Executive Director David Thompson.
In 2016, a provision that would have allowed school districts and local governments to publish financial statements on their own websites was jammed into a budget bill in the waning hours of the session. It passed both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by Republican Governor Matt Bevin. Two years later another public notice bill was passed in the final hours of the session. It moved annual school district financial statements and report cards to school district websites and allowed the eight largest counties in the state to bypass newspapers by publishing audits, ordinances and bid solicitations on their own websites. But this time Bevin’s veto was overriden by majorities of his own party in both chambers.
This year’s session in Frankfort featured another public notice donnybrook. It began with a bill to move all government notice out of newspapers — it’s a rare session when Kentucky doesn’t see one of those — and ended with a compromise that mostly maintained the status quo. Thompson was unnerved by the process and after it ended he told us he was no longer content to wait for the next shoe to drop. “We’re going whole hog in 2021,” he said. “We’re going on the offensive.”
KPA held a public notice “summit” via Zoom last month and about 40 newspaper owners and publishers were on the call, including several who had not participated in previous public notice battles. The organization is still formulating its plan for the session, but a few points of agreement emerged:
• Kentucky newspapers’ strongest argument for maintaining their public notice franchise is the widespread lack of internet access throughout rural areas of the state. Sharon Burton, publisher of the Adair County Community Voice and KPA President Elect, said even those in her county (pop: 19,202) who have internet access often have trouble getting online due to infrastructure issues. “Bottom line: Kentucky is not ready for this kind of information to go online,” she said. “That should be enough for legislators.”
• Local newspapers have earned respect with the public as a result of their COVID coverage, and they need to use that as leverage in the public notice fight. “Our stock value (with the public) is higher than it has been in my 30 years in the newspaper business,” said Jeff Jobe, president of KPA and seven-paper chain Jobe Publishing. “People are listening to us, people are believing us. We need to find a way to use that.”
• The biggest obstacle to maintaining newspaper notice is the opposition of the associations that represent cities and counties in the state. If KPA is going to move that needle, its member publishers will need to build relationships with the city and county managers who sit on the boards of those associations.
Next year is a short session in Kentucky, with only 25 days to conduct business before the legislature adjourns. That provides little comfort to Thompson, who notes that in the Bluegrass state lawmakers have a habit a jamming public notice provisions into budget bills late in the session. “It’s never over in Kentucky until the fat lady sings,” he says.