Keep public notices public

For at least a decade, some state legislators have been attempting to end the long-standing requirement that legal notices — of rezoning hearings, new ordinances, government meetings and the like — be printed in local newspapers.

Each year, this newspaper, others across the state and open-government groups have contended that “public notices belong where the public will notice.” That is not, we would argue, on a local government website — even sophisticated ones like Durham’s or Chapel Hill’s — where residents would have to go in specific search for them.

This year, legislators are predictably at it again, pressed by local-government organizations that point out their members could save taxpayer money by no longer paying for the newspaper ads. And there is little doubt that at least some of the legislative opponents of the ad requirement see ending it as a way of punishing newspapers that often publish critical stories and pursue embarrassing investigations.

Ending the requirement to publish the legal ads would be a financial hit for newspapers already combating a steady decline in print advertising revenue. The ding would be especially hard for rural and small-town newspapers where legal advertising is a major source of income. “If legal notice advertising was lost, we would probably lose at least one staff person, and smaller newspapers would close,” Tammy Dunn, publisher of the Montgomery Herald, told The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell.

The financial argument, however, is far less pertinent to the public than the public’s right to ready access to the legal notices of their governments, a point Dunn — who is president of the N. C. Press Association — stresses. “For a small rural community newspaper, it is a source of income, but more importantly, it is important for the public’s right to know,” she said.

Phil Lucey, executive director of the newspaper trade association, points out that newspapers today, despite declining print circulation, are still seen by more people than are government websites. (A compromise bill supported by the press association would ensure that legal ads published in a print edition of a paper would also be posted to the paper’s website.)

It’s perhaps not surprising journalists and publishers support the legal ads. But let’s give a local government have the last word here, as quoted in Campbell’s story. Here’s what the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners said in a resolution:

“The results of placing vital information on stagnant governmental websites is counterintuitive to the intent of the longstanding legislation requiring notification in newspapers.”