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Should the government be spending tax dollars printing tiny type in newspapers? The arguments in favor

Public notices, those tiny-type blurbs announcing zoning issues, licensing applications and public meetings, seem anachronistic in our database-driven world. Does anyone use them? Can anyone use them, with that crammed-in text? They’re a long-term accepted oddity that persists today. When Geoff Cowan and David Westphal came out with their report last week on government’s historic subsidies of the press, the printing of public notices as newspaper advertising was one of the awkward stars. As Cowan and Westphal put it:

Historically, these fine-print notices have been a lucrative business for newspaper publishers, and have touched off heated bidding wars for government contracts…But the era of big money in public notices will almost certainly fade away. Proposals have been introduced in 40 states to allow local and state agencies to shift publication to the Web, in some cases to the government’s own Web sites.

And when those proposals are made, newspaper companies are quick to defend their lucrative turf — vociferously. Legislatures in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio, among others, have considered moving public notices to government-run websites as a cost-cutting maneuver. These efforts are often for naught after strong newspaper opposition. (Virginia’s the latest, last week.)

Since the case against public notices seems so obvious — why should a local government buy ad space in a newspaper when it can publish the same material itself, in a more searchable and useful form? — I wanted to hear the arguments on the other side. Tonda Rush, a registered lobbyist for the newspaper industry and head of the Public Notice Resource Center, outlined for me the common arguments surrounding public notices. They fall into three domains.

It isn’t too much money: Pro-digital folks say public notices belong on the web, where publishing is cheap and search is easy. But bruised newspaper companies have no interest in watching yet another revenue stream get sucked away by the Internet. The only industry-wide public notice revenue data I was able to dig up is 10 years old. In 2000, the National Newspaper Association said public notices account for five to 10 percent of newspaper revenue.

Rush doesn’t have updated figures, but she noted repeatedly that the total amount government bodies spend on public notice fees is low. “We have yet to find a discussion going on at county or municipal level where the actual cost of these notices gets beyond one to two percent of the budget,” she said. “It’s not that much money.”  

Rush also pointed out that moving public notices to government-run websites incurs its own costs. There’s startup and design fees, and some amount has to be allocated to ongoing maintenance and updates. If the question is purely financial, Rush said, then the decision needs to balance costs on both sides of the equation. It could be that the actual savings of going web-based don’t amount to much. 

Of course, “one to two percent of the budget” sounds very different when it’s translated into a specific position or project. How many teachers would that pay for? Could it fund a social program?

Print sticks around: In researching this post, I ran across a number of pro-newspaper viewpoints that teetered on absurdity. The most egregious focused on the claimed archival problems of electronic public notices. A pamphlet published by the Arizona Newspapers Association contains this jaw dropper:

…in newspapers, Public Notices are a permanent archive that won’t go away if the electricity is turned off. You can research yesterday’s Public Notices or a notice published a decade ago.

Rush thankfully addressed archival issues from a far more measured and informed perspective. For starters, she said public notices have practical application. They’re official records, which means they can apply to all sorts of claims. 

Now, it’s certainly possible for an industrious scammer to fabricate a print-based public notice and pass it off as an official record. Layout skills and a copy of InDesign are all that’s needed. But if we elevate this a bit, the fundamental differences between print and web begin to play a role here as well. 

Print is a push technology (I’m taking license with the formal definition). A centralized news organization assembles a master file and then pushes thousands of copies out to the community. The web, on the other hand, is a pull technology. Readers access information — pull it — from an online news source. If someone wants to fabricate a document, it’s (theoretically) easier to do that in a web-based environment because changes can be made at the source. Print subterfuge is trickier because it can be refuted by a hard copy edition of the same newspaper. It’s not fail proof. Just tougher.

Whether anyone would bother to hack a public notice is a separate question (I tend to think not). The bigger issue here is which environment appears more secure. If you’re involved in litigation, you want the most iron-clad documentation you can find. And as Rush noted, the current print-based model does an adequate job creating fixed official records. Backups and vetting might address concerns about web-only public notices, but then we loop back cost savings. If you have to invest in layers of technology to achieve “official” status, are you still saving money? 

One archival counterpoint: Online public notice databases exist, but they’re little more than print blurbs shoveled wholesale onto the web. It seems like there’s an opportunity here for a newspaper — or a startup! — to liberate public notices from their poor formatting and turn that data into an accessible tool — an Everyblock of tax liens, sheriff’s sales, and license applications. And if this theoretical service also included a revenue stream — perhaps advertising, perhaps a Twitter-like data feed — that money could offset the investment needed to create official, verified web-based public notices. 

You can’t trust The Man: Some in the pro-print contingent like to play to an ingrained distrust of government. This line from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is a colorful representation of the argument:

Putting public notices on a government-run website is like trusting the fox to build and watch the henhouse.

Rush avoided henhouse quips when we discussed issues of independence and availability. She said public notices should be available through government websites as long as they also appear on newspaper sites and print editions.

“The question is where’s that official record,” Rush said. “Are you going to trust the government body publishing and maintaining it themselves and calling it an official record? That’s where the question gets much more pointed and much more critical.” 

That initially sounds conspiratorial. Are shady government organizations distributing propaganda-laced public notices? Probably not. It’s not as if newspapers are fact-checking public notices before starting the presses. But then again, there’s a reason the press evolved into its watchdog role. Governments meddle. And there’s the slippery slope argument, too: give an inch on something small like public notices and it makes bigger targets easier to bring down. 

What’s your take? Do print-based public notices still have value, or are they an awkward leftover from history, best done away with? Please weigh in through the comments.

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  • Jason Fry

    The first argument basically says that a small cost-savings isn’t worth pursuing because it’s small.

    The second argument pretty much ignores every technological innovation that’s come down the pike since about 1995.

    The third argument is, to be blunt, insane.

    Our industry is in enough trouble as it is. Now we’re going to ask the government to help us out by continuing to do things in a backwards way that doesn’t serve the public? Great plan!

  • Sam Hartle

    Before addressing some of the issues involved in the debate, I think at the very least local government should have the OPTION of whether to publish public notices in print or on third-party, independent Web sites (and not on their own Web sites).

    1) The issue of money: I get that newspapers are searching for sustainable revenue streams and fighting tooth and nail to maintain existing streams.

    But newspapers also purportedly serve the public interest. And the public interest is to make sure government is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. If that interest means governments should have the option of whether to post in print or online, they should have that option.

    And it’s hogwash that the money doesn’t matter to either the government or the media company seeking the ability to run public notices. If you’ve got a town of 5,000 people, the municipal budget might stand around $4 million – two percent of that is $80,000. Even a town with a $1 million budget might spend at least $10,000 annually in public notices, according to Tonda’s figures.

    That $80,000 (or even $10,000) is a significant amount for both the government and the media company.

    3) On the issue of you can’t trust the man: This is significantly more complicated than just pointing out who does what. It’s an issue of influence.

    What influence does the government have over a “independent” publication that might live and die on that $80,000 in revenue from public notices? Is that publication going to tread carefully on governmental issues to avoid jeopardizing that contract and thus, its existence?

    Anecdotally, I’ve seen instances where the government just avoids the issue altogether and has one of its cronies create a print publication and sends all the public notices there.

    All of these points, and the points made in the piece, don’t point to having public notices in just print or just online.

    What it points to is that local governments should have the option.

    But press associations across the country don’t seem to keen on even allowing the option to be available.

    And not having the option is something the public should notice.

  • Colin Mathews

    The industry response would be more coherent if the lobbyist practiced the kind of transparency newspapers expect from government itself. State press associations consistently and tenaciously lobby for these public notice requirements every legislative session in order to preserve their revenue and margins. The revenues are not a little money–there is no editorial cost, so they’re even more profitable than classifieds used to be. I would think that most of the revenue drops to the newspapers’ bottom lines.

    The issue of cost to the municipalities is nontrivial, too. Beyond Sam’s first point about the amount of absolute dollars spent by towns and counties, consider the compliance costs: the laws requiring that public notices appear in newspapers have convoluted, difficult-to-comply with provisions that assure that every publisher gets his finger in the pot.

    Speaking as the CEO of a company that has been asked again and again by our state and municipal clients if we can handle their public postings for them, I can say that there are businesses that could do this cheaper, better and with none of the conflicts of interest that the newspaper lobbyist fears. Even better, we could even syndicate the postings back to the newspapers in easy-to-publish formats that would still allow them to report it to their audiences–if they thought that the news was worth more than the money they took to print it in the first place.

  • Jonathan Stray

    The argument that electronic notices are less secure could be nullified if (whoa) proper security procedures were used. Any post-publication changes would be reliably detected if each notice file was cryptographically signed with the current date. Standards and infrastructure already exist for doing this, see e.g.

    Note that this would also prevent undetectable changes by the government. The signing time stamp would no longer match the purported date of the story.

    In my opinion, *all* news publication should be cryptographically time stamped. It’s not very hard, and completely prevents a hacker from undetectably changing the story. It also keeps the publisher honest, since they have to admit to any story changes after publication.

  • Pingback: Back to Basics on Public Notices « Reinventing the Newsroom

  • David Westphal

    Good piece, Max. Interesting comments, too. One thing I’m eager to know more precisely is the national cost of public notices. The 1 to 2 percent figure has to be way high. Local governments (not including state governments) spend $1.7 trillion or so annually. 1 to 2 percent of that is $17 to $34 billion. Even the low end there would amount to more than half of all newspaper advertising.

    The Iowa Press Association estimated the Iowa total at one-20th of 1 percent of local government spending. Extrapolated nationally, that would be just shy of $1 billion, as we noted in our report.

    But this doesn’t include either federal or state public notices. (Did anyone see yesterday’s Wall Street Journal? More than 4 pages of public notices notices paid for by the federal government.) It also doesn’t include the entirely separate category of notices the government requires of the private sector. When we were in Washington last week, virtually the entire Post classified section we picked up was bank-paid foreclosure notices required by the state of Virginia.

    On the merits, I think newspapers have strong arguments right now that Web-posting on a government page would drastically reduce the public’s exposure to these announcements. This is an issue that’s worthy of a full public airing, given the importance of public notices throughout American history and, I believe, the critical role they’ve played in setting a standard of openness.

    Even so, it’s clear where this is going longer term. Notices will eventually end up on the Web and this great revenue stream for newspapers will shrink significantly.

  • Max Heath

    As a semi-retired postal consultant who has “lobbied” the Kentucky legislature for my company since 1980, I would like to point out just a few things.

    1. In recent years, the same legislature that wanted to take public notices out of newspapers (usually because some legislator was mad at his or her newspaper over news coverage, or prompted by local public officials mad at the newspaper), very often proposed bills on a variety of new programs which also included a public-notice provision to ensure awareness and public accountability. While newspapers might understandably be interested in protecting their public-notice revenue stream, my experience, and a reading of history, I believe, will show that legislators themselves proposed public notices for very good reasons.

    2. The small type that critics use against the newspaper industry is also often proscribed by legislation.

    3. I can assure you that other than exceptional years for some major power company public filing or heavy election years, that legals do NOT provide more than 1% of the income for most community newspapers.

    4. Newspapers are a good vehicle because they are available to subscribers and single-copy purchasers to see as they page through a newspaper. The idea that people would spend time searching for public notices online, other perhaps bidders for contracts, is specious at best.

  • Chip Hutcheson

    Teetered on absurdity? That shows a complete lack of understanding regarding the long-term viability of printed public notices versus those on the Internet. I challenge you to find public notices on many government-based sites. And in some cases those notices require software that the average consumer will not have on their computer. And the claim that these notices are serious revenue streams is absurd.
    For a real-world application, ask the average person how they would go about finding a public notice on a government-based web site. Then ask that person how many public notices they have seen in newspapers. I’d call that a slam dunk victory for newspapers.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Chip: Any argument that relies on the lights staying on (or off) absolutely teeter on absurdity in my book. If electricity is down long enough for people to be worrying about public notice retrieval, we’ll have plenty of other things to concern ourselves with.

    Fear mongering obscures reasonable points. As I noted in the piece, Rush didn’t resort to that kind of thing and I found the arguments she made quite sound. That’s what’s unfortunate here. The bombast doesn’t further the dialogue.

    One question — and this came up as I was working on this piece as well — what software package (or packages) are you referring to? I’m assuming Acrobat, but I really don’t know.

  • Merle Baranczyk

    The city of Salida, CO conducted a recent survey with a 16 % response rate. One question was where do you go for local news? 91.8% said the local newspaper, 4% said the city website. And city officials were surprised at their website’s poor showing. In 2008 our public notice revenues ran 1.1% of gross, which is about average. Last year due primarily to an increase in numbers of foreclosures, revenues were 1.6% of gross. The purpose behind public notice is to make the public aware of official notices. So where do you put them to be noticed? On city websites or in newspapers?

  • Chip Hutcheson

    You are completely off-base in understanding the reasoning here. This is not an issue of the electricity being off or on. What may be accessible on the Internet today might be totally inaccessible years from now (i.e. 8-track tapes, floppy disks from previous years, just examples of the things we felt were secure that suddenly were ineffective). And the idea that governments control their own web sites, hence their own public notices, is akin to the fox guarding the hen house.
    Regarding software, school districts in Kentucky must post certain public notices on their individual web sites. Some are very lax in doing that – having the notices available months later than they should be. Not all are in Acrobat – some are Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, even Publisher documents.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Chip: I understand what you’re saying. I don’t have any argument with access concerns. I do not hold to the belief that digital = permanent. I’ve lost far too many hard drives to accept that fallacy.

    The government issue is absolutely relevant as well. I note that in the piece. There’s a slippery slope concern here.

    What I’m arguing against is the *way* some folks are positioning this. Quippy soundbites about electricity and henhouses sound clever, but they don’t overcome some pretty big detriments: public notices seem outdated because in many respects they are outdated. They’re printed in very small type. They’re relegated to deep, dark sections of the newspaper. There’s a couple strikes already against them, yet some of the people defending them — people with legitimate arguments — rely on messaging that’s hard to stomach. I think that’s counterproductive.

  • Chip Hutcheson

    @Mac: You’re saying they are outdated because of two factors: small type and “relegated” to deep, dark sections of the newspaper.
    As Max Heath noted, and it is true in Kentucky, the size of the type is mandated by law. In Kentucky, public notices are to be printed in 7 pt. type. As far as the location, many newspapers have taken proactive measures to create better positioning for public notices. Most papers, like ours, carry them in Classifieds. That puts them in a very visible, highly desirable part of the paper.

  • Mark Moskow

    People are naturally afraid of change. Doing it “the old way” is safe. It requires no thought, but is not what’s best for society. Technology is continously changing our world every day, like it or not.

    A similar situation is going on in NY where companies that form LLCs must pay up to $1,000 to publish their formation notice in newspapers. Many of the LLCs are small business owners who would like less expensive alternatives such as the Internet. In most areas including rural areas, internet penetration is greater than the paid newspaper penetration. There is a site called that is proactively doing something about it. They are publishing all LLC notices for free online. While the current law still requires publication in newspapers, it’s great to see how easy the “new world” will be as soon as the law catches up with technology.
    In response to the “fox guarding the hen-house” argument of government run web sites. Why not replace expensive newspaper requirements with “designated” publication sites like approved but not run by the government?