EDITORIAL:Â Public notices: published proof
One of the most overlooked and under appreciated assets of a community newspaper is also one of the most important: Public notices.
Also known as legals, this is the documentation of official proceedings of city councils, school boards, county commissions, townships and/or other government entities doing the people’s business here in Freeman, the state of South Dakota and across the land.
Not only do public notices serve as the official record of governmental proceedings, they are also a valuable permanent historical document. This week’s Courier carries 12 of them, from notice of vacancies on city councils and school boards to minutes from the last meeting of the Freeman City Council.
The fact that notices like these are printed on pages of newspapers like The Courier is critical to both democracy and accountability.
To that end, for years the South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA) has worked hard during legislative sessions in Pierre to both promote and protect public notices — specifically, public notices that appear in print.
That is critical, because almost every year there is at least a small legislative effort — often from the South Dakota Municipal League — that would no longer require public notices to appear on the pages of newspapers. Instead, the proposed legislation would require these notices be placed exclusively online, thus saving government entities the expense of the printed legal.
In each of those instances, SDNA has successfully intervened. While the association has acknowledged there should be an online outlet for official governmental proceedings — and there is — SDNA has done an effective job articulating the value of printed public notices, and the permanency that establishes.
Thankfully, the vast majority of lawmakers in Pierre have seen that, as well, and never has anti-print public notice legislation posed a legitimate threat on a chamber floor. Still, public notices remain something that SDNA — and other state associations across the country — guards closely.
And this year, in an effort to further demonstrate the value of these legal notices, SDNA is going on the offensive by introducing legislation that would broaden their reach.
House Bill 1075 requires all newspapers to, in addition to printing public notices as they always have, also post them to a website, sdpublicnotices.com, a searchable online portal maintained by SDNA. Additionally, HB1075 would require newspapers to make a link available to their readers giving them easy and free access to sdpublicnotices.com.
The bill received unanimous approval in committee last week and, on Monday, was approved on the House floor 69-1.
“This bill represents a proactive step by the state’s newspaper industry to modernize and enhance the reach of public notices published first and foremost in newspapers,” said Rep. Tim Reed, a Republican from Brookings and the bill’s sponsor.
Reed told members of the House that public notices in newspapers is an ongoing discussion in the House Local Government Committee, and that, “Continually people have said yes, we still want them printed in the hard copy,” Reed said.
HB1075 is a good one because it demonstrates SDNA’s commitment to promoting the people’s right to know — which is the very function of public notices — not only in its member newspapers but also in the online realm.
It’s the best of both worlds and certainly something that everybody who values open government and accountability can and should champion.
“This bill is about our industry being proactive and working to bring you a solution that will work well for the future of our state’s newspapers and, more importantly, for ensuring our local citizens are informed about what local entities are doing and how they are spending taxpayer dollars,” said SDNA Executive Director Dave Bordewyk, noting the value and reach of newspapers. “Newspapers and their websites are in a much better position to reach a much wider, populous audience than a government website.
“Newspaper websites garner much more web traffic than government websites any day.”
And all of this is to say nothing of just how well-read newspapers continue to be.
A recent readership survey commissioned by the SDNA shows that 83% of adults regularly read a newspaper either in print or online and an even higher percentage — 86% — say newspapers are the most trusted source of information when it comes to public notices.
Those are high numbers.
HB1075 is the right bill at the right time.
While a lot of questions percolate about what the future looks like for newspapers, there is no doubt that the mission of what we do remains the same as it has been since even before the statehood of South Dakota: To provide accurate, reliable and consistent information as it pertains to our communities, and to keep government accountable.
HB1075 will next be taken up by a Senate committee and, if approved there, would be heard on the Senate chamber floor. Those of us in the newspaper industry will be eagerly watching what happens next, and the larger public should be interested, as well.
After all, the more people who have access to the legal proceedings of our elected officials — in whatever form they choose — the better it is for democracy.
And who can’t get behind that?
Jeremy Waltner | Editor & Publisher