The End of Public Notices in Newspapers?

Public-notice-lawIf some PA lawmakers get their way under SB 733, local governments such as West Mayfield Borough will be allowed to change the way they inform the public about official business.

The proposed new legislation, sponsored by Bob Robbins (R-Mercer County), would allow local governments to post public notices on their websites instead of being required to pay for legal ads in newspapers.

What impact might this change in notification protocol and venue have on government transparency?  Would our citizenry be less or more informed?

TIME FOR A CHANGE

According to Sen. Robbins, the “Public Notice Modernization Act” would give municipalities, school districts and local authorities the option to electronically publish legal notices on a notice website instead of in a newspaper, as is currently required by law (see PA Title 45 [Legal Notices]).

“Giving local governments this ability would eliminate advertising costs [paid to newspapers] and enable them to reach a broader audience to receive bids on equipment and work,” Robbins asserts.  “It is estimated this legislation would save tens of millions of dollars annually for local governments state-wide. I believe now is the time to consider the Public Notice Modernization Act.  Fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers.”

Robbins cites a November 2012 Quinnipac University poll of 1,500 Pennsylvania voters that indicated only 13 percent “relied on newspapers for their political news and information.”

Yet, public advocacy groups like the SeniorLAW Center, Disability Rights Network of PA, and the PA Alliance for Retired Americans estimate that nearly 21 percent of Pennsylvanians don’t have access to the Internet.  According to the website Governing, a publication covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders, 2011 census data show that 30.5% of PA citizens lack any kind of Internet connection in their daily lives.

As expected, the newspaper industry opposes SB 733; it stands to lose revenue from local governments, but is its opposition to SB 733 just about the money? “It’s an access issue, says Paula Knudsen, director of legal affairs for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.  “It’s really critical for government to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on.”

Traditionally—and as a matter of law—governments are required to place official notices in local newspapers, with the assumption that the citizenry at large would be sufficiently informed about the affairs of government.

NEWSPAPERS REACH FEWER PEOPLE

Over the past 30 years, newspaper readership has fallen 30% or more, according to Pew Research.  The decline in readership has forced many newspapers to merge with competitors, alter their media to include online services, or to go out of business altogether.   But let’s put this trend into perspective.

Again according to Pew Research, approximately 30% of Americans read newspapers daily, and  Scarborough Research reports that  75% read a newspaper at least once a week.  These are millions of people getting news from print—much of that, local, hometown newsprint.  Whether print or online edition, newspapers still reach a significant number of people.

Locally—where the people live in their small boroughs, townships, and cities—local newspapers still serve the people best when it comes to local news.  The Beaver County Times, for example, has a daily circulation of 42,778.  Sunday’s circulation soars to 48,875.   If there are about 80,000 households in the county, the Times reaches an estimated 53% of the population.

Studies show that older adults (especially over the age of 65) are the most likely to read newspapers and least likely to use the Internet.  Beaver County’s median age is 44, and 20% of our residents are 65 or older.  In West Mayfield, nearly 42% of residents fall into this category, suggesting that newspaper readership is quite high in the borough.

SOME DAY, MAYBE

Of course, Internet connectivity and usage is on the rise.  Governmental websites are proliferating as well.  Approximately 50% of Beaver County municipalities have their own website.   The rest will undoubtedly be online in the next few years, as the next generation of government officials and citizens occupy and demand a greater share of cyberspace.

But are we there yet?  Are we ready to take the Internet plunge?

I don’t think so.  The statistics don’t support the proposition, nor does common sense.  In reality, local print media is still viable and preferred for governmental notices—in the Borough, County, and Commonwealth.   As much as Sen. Robbins is well intentioned and forward thinking, the citizens and their governments are not sufficiently ready for SB 733.  Someday perhaps, but not today.

Note:

To better serve the residents of West Mayfield and to provide greater transparency in local government, we’ve added a new feature to our website.  Residents can now find public notices & information about required public filings on the Government page.

–Kevin Farkas, West Mayfield website adminstrator

(The opinion expressed here does not necessarily reflect the view of West Mayfield Borough government.)  

Citizen comments and opinions welcomed.  Click Here.

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