A Bill That Should Make Newspaper Readers Take Notice


RALEIGH -- Friends and readers -- lawmakers here in Raleigh are taking a swipe at your local newspaper.

Last week, Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, won committee approval for a bill that would let cities and counties bypass the daily broadsheet or weekly tabloid and post all sorts of public notices -- from legal and estate ads to declarations about public meetings -- on their own websites. Senate Bill 343 would save local governments some tax dollars, Wade argues, and let them earn a few bucks to put toward education.

Left unsaid: it would be gut punch to papers like the one you're reading right now.

"This will hurt a lot of the small community newspapers," Todd Allen, publisher of the Wake Weekly, told the Senate Finance Committee.

Legal ads are steady business for publishers when many other sources of revenue have dwindled. Free Internet classifieds, the decline of big retail advertisers, and a generation of readers who think they get their news from social media have done a number on us ink-stained wretches.

Allen estimated losing legal notices would be a 5 percent hit to his bottom line, and would probably force a few small papers to close.

So when I spoke to Wade last week, I asked her if getting knocked around by her local newspaper -- my former employer -- might have colored her judgment. Is this bill retribution for one hard-hitting editorial too many?

"Absolutely not," she shot back. "I've been trying to do this since the first time that the (N.C. League of Municipalities) and the (N.C. Association of County Commissioners) asked me to."

Wade has been both a city councilwoman and county commissioner, so it's no surprise she's responsive to those two associations.

"I really don't think government should prop up any private for-profit business when there's a more accessible way to do something," Wade said.

I wish she didn't, but Wade has a point.

County governments can reach as many people online as a newspaper can. And we scruffy media types would howl if the state insisted on using regulations to protect an aging industry against the tides of progress, like maybe insisting that craft breweries sell their products through a wholesaler under a system first designed in the post-prohibition era.

I beg your pardon -- that's another column.

However, two things can be true at once.

Wade's bill may be pennywise, but it's pound foolish for taxpayers.

It says you should trust the foxes who run your city councils and county commissioners to watch their own henhouses. Sure they'll give the public notice of important meetings, provided you know where to look.

Early on in the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the protagonist complains that notice of his home's impending demolition wasn't clearly posted. "It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard,'" he tells an unsympathetic bureaucrat.

Requiring public notices to run in the local paper will make sure that you won't have to click through the Internet equivalent of the "Beware of the Leopard" sign, and it has the added bonus of helping make sure someone's at that meeting to pay attention.

Since I landed my first full time newspaper gig in 1998, more than half the editors, writers and photographers who worked in the business have left. Wade's bill would mean even more of my colleagues who keep an eye on your town budget or local sheriff will be doing something else next year.

Those ads help pay for reporters who will not only read public notices, but head on down to the city council meeting and ask about why the town is giving away incentives to a new business, or hasn't filled a pothole Main Street or is bothering to pay for the mayor's junket to the big League of Municipalities confab this June, hosted at the Embassy Suites Spa & Golf Resort in Concord, if you must know.

Stanford professor James Hamilton recently made the case that paying for investigative reporting has real, bottom line cost savings for the public by identifying problems that governments won't readily unearth themselves.

So folks, it's time to take notice of this public notice bill. It's bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

If you agree, be sure your local lawmakers take notice of your opinion.


Mark Binker is Editor of the NC Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at mbinker@ncinsider.com.