Because the taxpayers have a right to know, have a need to know and want to know, that’s why. The argument is as simple as that.
Sure, a school district, a city, a county, a utility district or a state government can post legal notices online at little or no cost. But so what? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? If a notice gets posted on an obscure Web site and taxpayers don’t think to look at the site, does the notice really matter?
Nope. That’s why newspaper notice is important.
The difference between governmental or third-party online-only postings and newspaper postings is very simple. It comes down to whether a reader — i.e., a taxpayer — has a reasonable opportunity to see the notice or not. If the notice is one that the reader must search for online, chances are it won’t be seen by very many of us who eventually pay the bills. It’s a simple readership issue — or, in Web-speak, a traffic issue.
That is the nut of the matter. If our government is based on transparency — and we like to think it is, despite all the open records and open meetings battles we fight every day — then our government’s actions need to be published in the most accessible form possible. The reality is that the most visible, endurable medium is still the printed newspaper, along with its associated Web products.
Most newspaper Web sites are the stars of the online market in their respective communities. Almost without exception, newspaper Web sites have more traffic than any other local or regional sites. Any “notice” that is posted independently online by a governmental entity or a vendor is likely to be read only by those who have a vested interest and are searching for notices of that sort. A published newspaper notice, on the other hand, is right there in black and white for anyone who reads the classified ads ... and, in most cases, online as well.
Obviously, legal notices are a source of revenue for newspapers. But generally, they’re not our bread and butter. Most newspapers give the lowest rate available for these notices, and we’re happy to do so — not only because we make a little bit of money off the notices, but because they’ re an important part of the public record. And the public record is what newspapers protect and preserve every day, every week, every month and every year.
To relegate public notice to online services only would be a severe detriment to the people’s right — indeed, the people’s demand — to know what our government is up to. That is why we must continue to fight to maintain printed public notices. After all, information is power, and power determines the direction of our republic. To weaken that is to weaken our control over the government that we empower.
Dennis Baggett us editor-in-chief of The Eagle in Bryan-College Station, Texas.