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Bill could end public, legal notices in newspapers

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Calling it a matter of the public’s right know, North Carolina newspaper publishers are pushing back against a bill that would let governments and attorneys stop publishing public and legal notices in newspapers.

N.C. Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, the bill’s sponsor, says it’s a move into the modern age and would save taxpayers money.

The publishers back compromise legislation, modeled on a law passed five years ago in Florida, that would maintain the requirement that government notices be published in newspapers, and adding the requirement that the notices be posted online.

Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, plans to file the alternate proposal next week, according to the N.C. Press Association.

There are still many residents, particularly rural and elderly ones, who don’t have access to the Internet and can’t view the notices online, Ross said.

“There are a lot of people who still depend on the newspaper,” he said.

Under current law, government public and legal notices must be published in general circulation newspapers. These notices are, in many cases, a key source of revenue for newspapers.

The bill sponsored by Wade, along with Sens. Wesley Meredith, R- Cumberland, and Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, would let local governments post public notices on their websites instead of paying to place them in newspapers.

The bill would require newspapers that do run public notices in their print editions to post them on their websites for free, according to Wade’s office. The bill also would save tax dollars by forbidding newspapers from charging more than 85 percent of the original rate for notices that must be published twice, her office said.

Local governments that publish legal notices on their own websites could charge law firms that want them posted. Half of all fees collected by local governments for legal notices would go toward local teacher salary supplements.

IN AN EMAIL TO North Carolina newspaper publishers, the NCPA said that giving local governments the option to place the ads on their own websites rather than in newspapers could create a chilling effect because governments could opt to suspend publishing in print newspapers any time one of them criticizes the government.

The “compromise bill” that Ross and other House members will file next week would require governments to publish the notices in newspapers, but newspapers would be required also to post the notices on their websites for free, and offer a 15 percent discount for notices published more than once.

“In a recent study by the NCPA over a large sampling, newspapers continue to reach an overwhelming amount of citizens compared to county websites, in some cases as much as 3 to 1,” said Phil Lucy, executive director of the NCPA. “When comparing visitors in print and online to our products to that of a government website, it is clear that citizens come to newspapers for local information and news about their communities, including these important legal notices. “

Paul Mauney, publisher of Times-News, said “the issue is eyeballs.

“The spirit of the law is for government notices to be in front of the public,” he said.

The amount of revenue that legal and public notices produce for newspapers varies by the newspaper, “but for small weeklies, it represents a large percentage.”

“Even though it is a revenue source for newspapers, the issue here isn’t that,” Mauney said. “The issue is the public’s right to know.”

Reporter Bill Cresenzo can be reached at bcresenzo@thetimesnews.com or 336-506-3041. Follow him on Twitter at @BillCresenzoTN.