Let’s begin with a quiz.
1. What do legal notices posted in North Carolina newspapers have to do with North Carolina teacher supplements?
2. When was the last time you visited Watauga County’s website?
3. If local newspaper readership is declining, as some have misreported, then why are you, and an ever-growing number of readers, reading this editorial in the Watauga Democrat, your hometown newspaper?
We admit, No. 1 had us stumped, too, until Tuesday, April 26, when the answer was revealed, via a red herring from the North Carolina Senate. On that day, the Senate passed SB 343, a bill entitled “Increase Teacher Supplement/Electronic Notice” that would dramatically change the way you can access public and legal notices — advertising now required by law to be placed in newspapers, the most accessible and widely read medium available to keep the public informed.
Within the confines of the misconceived SB 343, however, local governments would have the option to publish public and legal notices on their own websites, charging fees to law firms that post them. Local governments would not pay a fee to post their own notices. Further, the fees collected would be divided: 10 percent for administrative costs of the county; 40 percent to the county general fund; and, 50 percent to the local board of education for payment of local supplements for teachers.
Why is this misconceived? After all, local governments not having to use tax dollars to pay for advertisements, filling county coffers and supplementing teacher pay in this way all sound like, as bill sponsor Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford County) said — and like-minded senators such as Deanna Ballard (R- Allegheny, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell and Watauga counties) expressed via an “aye” vote — a “win-win.”
Except that it’s not.
Wade and others would have you believe that the dozens of local newspapers across the state are decrying this measure for purely pecuniary reasons. And, have no doubt, fees paid through public notices and legal advertising are indeed important to the economic health of the newspapers that publish them.
But, they are more important to the public. This is why laws dating to the earliest days of our state have required that information be made public via the most trusted, most consumed and most permanent media source available — the newspapers of record in the communities they serve.
Indeed, public and legal notices are the most important advertisements in any newspaper, including the Watauga Democrat. It is through such notices that the public is made aware of proceedings enacted by our government agencies — proceedings in which you have the opportunity to voice an opinion before rule making or lawmaking happens.
Of course, you can only have that voice if you know beforehand such a proceeding is going to occur. And this brings us to questions No. 2 and 3.
Wade would also have you believe, as she said, that “newspaper readership is declining, and most people use the internet and smartphones to obtain instant information for free though websites like Craigslist rather than buying a newspaper to read the classified section.”
Sadly, Wade and other senators, such as, even more sadly, Ballard, are out of touch with their constituents. The readership of the Watauga Democrat, through its print edition and website, has never been more robust. Circulation may be in decline for our state’s metro newspapers, but for local news, local newspapers are now more than ever the trusted and most read news source in the communities they serve.
So, to address our quiz directly, where are you more likely to learn — and believe — that the Watauga County Board of Commissioners will hold a special meeting to discuss the merits of an asphalt plant locating in the county: within the pages of the local newspaper that has been fairly and accurately reporting news since 1888, or on a county website whose aspiration is to mimic Craigslist?
Indeed, to quickly assess your own “go-to” for local news, can you answer this question: Watauga County now has a website, presumably the one that would host public notices. Does the url of that website end in .com, .org or .gov? Are you 100 percent sure?
And, are you sure that Wade’s red herring of something as important as attracting qualified teachers or retaining the educators we have is the job of local attorneys and their clients? There is a disconnect here between Raleigh and North Carolina’s boards of education.
Public and legal notices are important, and it is important that the public have access to them. And despite Wade’s crystal ball prediction that “traffic to (county) websites would certainly increase once this public service is offered,” to date, the most widely available access has been your local newspaper.
The importance of this is not in dispute. Indeed, so important are such notices that SB 343 would require newspapers that continue to run such notices put them on their websites at no additional charge for posting — or viewing.
At this, you will find no argument from the Watauga Democrat. Legal notices that run in our news pages are similarly posted to our website — which is free for the public to access. Further, we encourage any colleagues in North Carolina who are not now doing so, to do the same.
It is almost inconceivable that Wade could have convinced 30 out of 49 voters, including Ballard, to support this ad populum bill.
Yet she did. And so now we must turn to the House for the clearer heads of our representatives, such as Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga), to prevail. SB 343 has been referred to committee in the House, meaning it officially made the crossover. While, as of presstime, it has not made it to the floor for a vote, we can only insist that that our representatives recognize Wade’s bill for the ill-considered attempt at using legislation to fund a portion of government that it is.
Make no mistake, Wade’s pseudo cost-saving bill does not come without a cost. That cost would be a free press and your access to the information that press provides.