Here we go again.
I’m hearing rumblings that the state Legislature might try to take another run at legal notices that are published in the newspaper.
Ostensibly, getting rid of legal notices is supposed to save government agencies money, as they must pay newspapers an amount intended to recoup the cost of printing the notices. But I’ve also heard that some politicians want to “stick it” to newspapers, who sometimes publish news stories that they don’t like. In this day and age of constant media bashing, it seems like a pretty opportune time for politicians to strike while the iron is hot.
I’m not dumb enough to think I’m not whistling in the wind on this one, and I know we can appeal only so far to politicians’ good sense, logic and moral judgment.
Nonetheless, I’ll lay it out again.
First, a story about a time I tried to access water rights application documents online from the Idaho Department of Water Resources. I spoke by phone with the regional director about what I was looking for, and he directed me to the application online. After I hung up the phone, I went to the website, found the application, clicked on the first few pdf’s, opened them, read them, downloaded them, all with no problem. On about the sixth pdf, I couldn’t open it. I tried to open the seventh, to no avail. I went back to the first one, and I couldn’t open it. I refreshed the page and noticed the documents were now all out of order. I realized that the regional director must have gone in at the same time I went in and was opening the documents, himself.
That made me realize that official documents are changeable and deleteable — the opposite of an official document in a printed newspaper that is not changeable or deleteable.
A government agency is required, for example, to publish a legal notice for an upcoming public hearing with a certain amount of advance notice. Publishing it in a newspaper on a specific date, with the date right up there at the top of the page, is irrefutable. Online, you just don’t get that same certainty.
I know that not everyone reads the legal notices. Many of you reading this column right now are probably thinking, “I never look at those things.” But some of us do look at those things. And not just journalists. I have a good friend for whom reading the legal notices in the newspaper is one of the main attractions. Particularly in smaller towns, where a rate increase or a new subdivision next door or a water right application could be a really big deal.
OK, so what about putting everything online? Most people go online anyway. That’ll save money because you won’t have to print them.
Couple of things. One, newspapers in Idaho already put all the legal notices online at idahopublicnotices.com as a backup source for the printed legal notices. Second, if you think that doesn’t cost any money to run, you’re kidding yourself. If the state takes it over, it’ll cost money. Which state-funded budget would you like to take it out of?
Third, a recent study of a newspaper that shuttered its print newspaper and went to online only showed their readers didn’t fully follow them online, tending to graze on the news, jumping from link to link and reading for less time. I think the same would happen with legal notices.
So what, right?
Well, another study, from the Pew Research Center, showed that when a newspaper closes, the cost of government in that town or county increases.
I’d argue that we’d see the same thing without legal notices in print newspapers. It would be harder for someone to mind the store.
Maybe that’s the real goal here?