Ah, legal notices: those wordy blocks of text sent out by local government agencies and courts that fill a daily newspaper’s classifieds section and provide the best natural substitute to Lunesta yet found. There were 10 such notices in the Feb. 23 issue of The Maui News. They ran in the back of the paper, at the bottom of pages B9 and B10 of the classifieds section. They included a court summons, a request for quotes from contractors for work to be done on the solar telescope atop Haleakala, a notice (with a map!) from the county alerting residents to speed hump construction, three announcements of upcoming foreclosure sales and four notices of the completions of local construction contracts.
It’s not very exciting reading, but such notices do provide the public an understanding of what government is up to on a daily basis. The notices also provide big money to The Maui News–and all the major “papers of record” in the nation. In fact, according to a Feb. 9 blog post from the Poynter Institute, legal notices provide up to five percent of a general circulation newspaper’s advertising revenue.
But now, according to two bills making their way though the state Senate (SB 2219, which was deferred on Feb. 8 and SB 2233, which is still very much alive, having passed out of a Ways and Means committee hearing on Feb. 24), state officials are thinking of moving publication of legal notices online to official government websites. Doing so would save state and local governments thousands of dollars, as well as provide for the posting of far more informative and detail listings than those currently run in daily papers’ classifieds sections. But it would also, according to blogger Ian Lind (whose Feb. 23 blog post first alerted me to the bills’ existence), “end the newspapers’ monopoly on publication of legal notices.”
Predictably, the publishers of Hawaii’s biggest dailies all submitted stinging written testimony to the Legislature complaining about the bills and boasting of the public need for they and they alone to publish these notices (while ignoring the ad revenue angle):
• Ted Dixon, Publisher, Hawaii Tribune-Herald (also president of the Hawaii Publishers Association)
“Before a state designates a newspaper to publish public notices, states generally require the newspaper to have paid circulation, a minimum percentage of news content, a local publishing address, and a continuous publishing history. The latter requirement ensures stability in the venue for public notices, so that the public will have a reliable place to search for public notices.”
• Joe Bradley, Publisher, The Maui News
“Newspapers of general circulation have long been the medium for that wide dissemination. Certainly the residents of our state and county do not search governmental websites for news. The Maui News has the largest audience on Maui and our readers rely on us as a source of information. Public notices are an important part of that information.”
• Tracey Fosso, Publisher, West Hawaii Today
“It is critical at this time to reduce government costs but citizens’ rights should never be sacrificed for these reductions. Awareness of government processes and actions is of utmost importance and must be protected and the current system of independent and widespread publication of these processes and actions is essential.”
• Dave Kennedy, Senior Vice President, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
“Our readers rely upon receiving public notices from newspapers of general circulation for this information. It is a gold standard that is followed throughout the nation.”
Kennedy even added that “Our readership and print circulation are both rising at a very healthy rate,” apparently trying to make the case that the dailies are still strong and vital and growing. It’s an interesting statement, though not very likely, especially given that last June Honolulu Civil Beat pointed out that the current Star-Advertiser weekly circ figure (listed as “more than 538,000” in Kennedy’s testimony) actually topped 700,000 back in 2006 (and that was just for the pre-merger Honolulu Advertiser).
Look, there are good reasons to be skeptical of moving legal notices online. Can officials post such notices on a secure website that won’t just vanish a year after posting? Will the poor and elderly still see the notices even though they don’t exactly have a lot of Internet access? And what about the notion that legal notices went to papers in the first place because they could disseminate the information independently of government?
Right now you can count the number of states that are serious about moving legal notice publication online on one hand. But given current tech trends, there’s no reason why legal notices won’t eventually end up online, along with everything else the daily paper currently publishes.