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Feb. 4, 2010, 10 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Feb. 4, 2010, 10 a.m.
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