The “legals” aren't as much fun as the comics pages or as colorful as the fronts of the features sections. But legally required public-service advertising by government agencies has played a key role in newspapers since America was founded.
In this age of digital innovation and constant pressure to reduce government spending, the idea of putting that advertising exclusively online keeps popping up in both state and federal government. But undercutting the printed-newspaper method of ensuring official transparency and accountability would be reckless and thoughtless.
We say that not just because the revenue from those ads helps this newspaper and newspapers across the country fulfill our mission of providing high-quality community journalism and information. The requirement that government at all levels provide printed notice of its actions is in itself a safeguard on our system of government.
Even to Henry Phillips, advertising director of Fort Wayne Newspapers Inc., The Journal Gazette's business partner, the core issue isn't the money that newspapers would lose if legal and public notices were taken out of print, though he notes that some small newspapers might not survive if that revenue were lost. The real problem is that people would be far less likely to see a notice that affects them if it were simply posted on a government website.
“It's not as critical to our survival,” Phillips said, “as it is to our commitment to the public's right to know.”
The law requires that governments and school systems publish their expenditures, meeting schedules, contract bidding and other actions in a newspaper with more than 50 percent paid subscriptions. Other required public notices include township budgets, warnings of foreclosures and planned home demolitions, probates, items left in storage facilities, and name changes, title searches for abandoned vehicles and annexation plans.
Granted, it's not anyone's idea of light reading. But hand in hand with newspaper reporting and commentary, it allows a community to keep up on what its government is doing and how it affects citizens. When it's printed, the information also is available through our sites,journalgazette.net and fortwayne.com, and at the Hoosier State Press Association's website, hspa.com.
But print reaches those who don't have or use computers. Just as important, printing the information in a newspaper creates a permanent record for those who use it and to remain in the newspaper's archive for historical purposes.
“Often,” writes Steve Key, the HSPA's executive director, “government officials must verify they have notified the public about an action ...
“When an attorney presents the newspaper page carrying the required public notice, no one questions that it was published on the date of that newspaper edition and that the public had an opportunity to react if they had a concern about what the county or government agency was poised to do.
“Verifying when an item was posted on the Internet, how long it was posted and whether it was altered is an entirely different matter.”
Required public-notice advertising is an important guarantee of government accountability. Some officials find it to be a pain to comply with, which explains why they're proposing in effect doing away with the laws and the system. That also explains why you should be very wary of that proposal.