Keep public notices in front of the public
In this newspaper, on Page 22, you will find several public notices. They contain important information about various local government meetings and actions as well as, on occasion, announcements of upcoming foreclosures, potential court rulings, and local stores and restaurants that want licenses to serve alcohol. For decades, Virginia law has required such notices to be published in local newspapers, where both the casual reader and someone looking for them can find them. The law – strengthened in 2019 with support from the newspaper industry – sets specific requirements newspapers must meet in order to qualify to publish these notices.
However, a proposal in the General Assembly this session would allow online-only websites to join newspapers as an option for publishing these legal notices. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons.
First, we’re already in the 21st century. All legal notices published in this paper and every other paper in the state are not only posted on our website, but they are also uploaded to a searchable statewide website run by the Virginia Press Association. Those online requirements were part of the 2019 legislation.
And while there is no doubt that the number of people reading newspapers in print has declined, the number reading our websites has never been greater. Visitors to the Rappahannock News website total many times the county’s population every month, for example.
More importantly, though, we believe our forefathers required publication of these notices in print for two reasons. Number one is that a newspaper is unlike any other medium in that a reader is likely to stumble across something that he or she was not expecting – such as a public notice about an ordinance or issue that might be of interest to them, to a friend or relative, or to a client or vendor. That serendipity simply cannot be replicated online, where most users search for a specific piece of content and then leave the site after reading that content.
Secondly, a newspaper serves as a permanent physical record that the notice was actually published, that it actually contained the required information, and that it appeared the requisite amount of time before the meeting or event (all of which are required in state law).
One need look no further than down Route 29 to the case of The Hook to see the shortcomings of posting notices only online. This longtime Charlottesville-area publication was bought by someone who apparently didn’t like some of its content – so he simply erased all of it from the internet (read more about this at rappnews.link/52m). Web sites can be updated, changed, or deleted at any time. Once a newspaper is printed, it exists for eternity. This ensures that local governments and other agencies can verify – even years later – that a notice was actually published correctly. Not having such an accurate record can expose taxpayers and regulated entities to costly litigation.
Supporters of allowing notices in online-only sites argue that it would create more competition, which would lower the cost for local governments and other entities that place public notices. In reality, these costs represent the tiniest of fractions of local governments’ budgets, and there are a variety of ways to keep costs down – including putting the notices up for bid.
As a newspaper, we obviously have a vested interest in this issue. But public notices are not some kind of welfare for newspapers. They are a small percentage of our revenue – and they cost us money to process, print and deliver. We believe they are critical to the functioning of a democracy, though, and that only the powerful combination of newspapers and their websites can provide the transparency, serendipity and permanency necessary to ensure they serve their full purpose.