Why public notices belong in newspapers

Published 12:15 am Sunday, October 30, 2016

Across our nation, some government officials seek to find ways that will allow them to not publish government public notices in local newspapers. That is no different here in Mid- and South Jefferson County. City politicians who disagree with editorial direction and content meant to keep communities informed tend to be at the core of this movement.

Although they would never admit it, their goal is to strike a financial blow to local newspapers after unfavorable editorials and/or opinions about themselves. This, however, is a federal offense and direct attack on the First Amendment. Which is why they will spin their cause a much different way to gain support.

Citizens need to be cautious when approached by a city politician directing this type of change. Citizens should be aware of the importance of publishing public notices and how they affect each and every citizen. And how not running them could change and affect their lives in a negative manner.

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1. The purpose of public notices is to make citizens aware of impending governmental actions and intent. That’s why the Texas Constitution and numerous Texas statutes require them. There’s no more effective way to notify large numbers of people than with newspapers, which publish the notices both in print AND online.

2. If you want something to get noticed, put it in the newspaper. Newspapers’ readership far exceeds that of any other medium. The number of print readers, combined with our online readership, makes total newspaper penetration higher than it has been in years and most attractive to anyone who must reach a mass audience.

3. Regardless of the market size, newspaper online traffic is consistently much higher than readership of governmental websites. While newspapers — in print and online — are seen as a “go-to” independent source for reliable and consistent local information, local governmental websites have a very small sliver of readership.

4. Newspaper readers are most likely to be involved in local civic activities — and to vote. Surveys consistently show that about 70 percent of voters are frequent newspaper readers.

5. Texas newspapers not only publish public notices in print and on their websites, but they combine all public notices into a free, searchable statewide website for the convenience of citizens and vendors who have interests in other areas of the state. Readers can even sign up for email notifications whenever a notice regarding an area of interest to them is filed. All this is at no extra charge to the governmental entity.

6. Texas law requires that newspapers print public notices at their lowest published classified rate, so the taxpayer is getting a bargain. The fees are used to help defray the hard costs of paper, ink, delivery and the personnel cost of producing the pages and the online components.

7. Many governmental entities already post their notices online, in addition to publishing them in the newspaper. That’s fine, but it doesn’t get them noticed by thousands of people like a newspaper notice does. If public notices were only available on government sites, they would be seen only by citizens who actively seek them out — and could be found only by those who (a.) were looking for the notices, (b.) have online access, (c.) are aware of each of the myriad of governmental entities whose sites they should scour for notices (Harris County alone has about 500 entities), and (d.) have the expertise to locate notices that may be buried many clicks deep within a governmental website. A newspaper notice published only in the area affected, however, can and often is “discovered” by a reader who is simply reading the paper with his morning coffee.

8. “Discovering” a governmental notice may be how a citizen first hears of governmental plans that have an important impact on him or her — actions such as annexations, zoning changes, school attendance zone revisions, tax increases, bond issues, large governmental purchases, or planned projects with environmental impacts such as landfills, pipelines, industrial emissions expansions, etc. All of which affect all of us.

9. Elderly residents, low income residents, minorities and rural residents are statistically less likely to have internet access than other groups. Eliminating print notice would effectively disenfranchise these citizens from civic involvement.

10. The independent third-party approach to publishing and archiving public notices is an essential element of government transparency and accountability. If governmental entities are allowed to “publish” and archive their notices on complex governmental websites that are designed, maintained and operated by governmental officials, citizens could lose much more than the relatively few dollars involved in the cost of newspaper public notices.

Ultimately, if government is allowed to stop publishing local public notices in local newspapers, citizens should become very concerned as to what they are trying to hide. This is your city. Elected officials are there because of you, and there for you. Trying to hide public notices is not in your best interests and those that wish to do so, should not be in public office.

Rich Macke is publisher of The Port Arthur News. Contact him at rich.macke@panews.com