Drive to relegate public notices strictly to websites is bad for democracy

On March 13, the staff of a small newspaper in the nation’s heartland will be recognized by a national organization dedicated to ensuring that public (or legal) notices remain in American newspapers.

The Mitchell Daily Republic, a small daily near Sioux Falls, was alerted by a reader of an item in a budget notice printed by the local school district. The notice revealed that the school district paid a $175,000 severance to a former superintendent, a fact that had not been revealed before and wouldn’t have seen the light of day had the public notice not been published and the reader noticed it.

The revelation resulted in the newspaper mounting a protracted legal battle as it filed suit against the school district to access records on the severance package. The newspaper was, eventually, successful in its suit and published a series on the severance package.

The newspaper, as a result of its work, will receive the Public Notice Resource Center’s national Public Notice Journalism Award for 2014.

And it all started with a public notice published in a newspaper, a feature that has come under repeated fire over the past decade in Oregon and other states.

“(The series) all started with the reader who saw the payment in the legals and called us with the tip,” said Republic editor Seth Tupper. “Without those legals, I don’t believe anyone outside of the school district board and administration would ever have known about the amount or nature of the $175,000 agreement between the school district and the ex-superintendent.”

Detractors argue against publishing public notices for two reasons: They believe that newspapers are no longer relevant and, therefore, citizens would be better served by displaying public notices on websites alone; and, organizations don’t want to pay the cost of publishing public notices.

Well, given that it was a Republic reader that set off the severance package imbroglio via a public record printed in a newspaper, the former argument holds no water. As to the cost of printing public notices? Sure, it costs money but it also serves the public better than the alternative.

“This series is a terrific illustration of why it is important for governments to keep these notices where the public is likely to find them,” said PNRC President Bradley Thompson.

We maintain, as we always have, that the public is best served when legal notices are printed in newspapers. The printed page is more permanent and stays around on readers’ coffee tables longer, allowing for repeated scrutiny and the offhand chance that a reader will find something that needs to be shared with the public.

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