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Keep government notices in newspapers

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Minnesotans were asked in a survey last year to imagine they could get public government notices anywhere. An overwhelming majority cited newspapers or newspaper websites as their top choice.

The following is an editorial from the Duluth News Tribune.

In 1789, there was a healthy mistrust of government, so it was no wonder that one of the Founders’ first official acts was ordering the publication of every bill, order, resolution and congressional vote in at least three privately run, publicly distributed newspapers.

Does anyone believe trust in government has improved since Colonial times?

Of course not.

But that’s only part of the reason a bill to be considered by this year’s Minnesota Legislature to remove public government notices from newspapers and from newspaper websites (where they’re typically posted for free) is so deeply troubling. House and Senate versions of the measure call for the notices to be published instead on government websites — where they easily could be buried and where most of us wouldn’t think to look for them anyway. The change would make it easier for local governments in Minnesota to operate out of the public eye.

Minnesotans were asked in a survey last year to imagine they could get public government notices anywhere. An overwhelming majority cited newspapers or newspaper websites as their top choice. The U.S. Postal Service came in second, trailing by a whopping 16 percentage points.

“Do you believe keeping citizens informed by publishing public notices in the newspapers is an important requirement?” the survey, conducted by New York-based local-market researchers Scarborough, also asked. Nearly 80 percent answered with a resounding yes. Only 15 percent said no.

In addition, “The Minnesota Senate asked the public in a … state fair poll what their primary source for acquiring government or political information was. Community newspapers were overwhelmingly the first choice,” the Minnesota Newspaper Association reported this winter. “Newspaper websites have a significantly higher number of visits to their websites than government websites; even rural newspapers have well over 1 million visits (per) month.

“Notices appearing only on a government website would remove public notice from the mainstream of community information and would make it significantly less likely that they would be seen.”

Local governments already are free to post notices and proceedings on their websites, as the legislation seeks. Curiously, few do. Yet they want to take over the task entirely?

Both the Association of Minnesota Counties and the League of Minnesota Cities are urging their members to pass resolutions of support for House File 1286 and Senate File 1152. Northland cities and counties, led by Duluth and St. Louis County, can reject such misguided support.

Support instead belongs with preserving a free and independent press, a critical component of our society. In addition to its watchdog role, publishing notices brings needed revenue to Minnesota’s 342 newspapers, which printed and distributed an astounding 7 million editions every week last year.

“Bucking the national trend, print circulation has increased, and visits to newspaper websites have skyrocketed,” said the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “The purpose of public notice requirements is to publicize information about government actions in places where the public is most likely to see it, so its citizens can make well-informed decisions and be active participants in a democratic society. Government has an affirmative duty to provide this information so it is transparent and easily accessible.”

People who support removing public notices from newspapers like to say it’ll save money. And what taxpayer can’t get behind any initiative to curb government spending? But in this instance the claim never has been substantiated while the fact remains that putting notices into newspapers accounts for a tiny fraction of government spending.

Any amount is a worthy investment. Our Founders recognized that, and Americans have supported that for more than 200 years. Minnesota lawmakers can think twice before turning their backs on that much wisdom, public sentiment and overwhelming support.

“Newspaper publication prevents government from deciding when and how the notice is published, and whether it is changed after it is published. Public notices in newspapers are also a critical checks-and-balance on potential government errors,” the newspaper association said. “Do we really want government to have sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its own notices?”

Of course not.

Reprinted with permission.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Don Reeder on 02/21/2014 - 03:57 pm.

    Publishing of public notices

    An opposing view, from the League of Minnesota Cities:

  2. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 02/22/2014 - 12:12 pm.

    Other options

    Publishing in the newspaper is an expense that could easily be reduced though technology. Rather than just having to post notices online which I agree could go un-noticed, governments could be required to post them on their Facebook pages or set up email subscription services for residents to receive all notices or a subset of notices by neighborhood or topic.

    Seems time to make this simple step forward.

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