Two bills before the Legislature—S.97, introduced by senators Anthony Pollina and Jeanette White, and H.483, introduced by Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), propose allowing public notices to be posted on electronic news media that have been authorized by the Secretary of State as “newspapers of record.”
Generally speaking, “newspapers of record” must be authorized by government and be widely available to the public. Print newspapers currently fill that function, selling page space at varying rates. Our hometown and regional newspapers reach thousands of readers on newsstands, in libraries, by home delivery, or in the café or barbershop. In addition, many of them have companion websites.
Nothing in either bill as introduced says that electronic records will replace or compete with publication of legal notices in print media, but the possibility is raising issues within the newspaper industry at large.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns website (“Ask the League August-September 2016”) states: “The legislature has never addressed the issue of whether the ‘newspapers’ referred to in statute include online news platforms.” S.97 and H.483 plug that gap.
One crucial role of an independent press is to inform the citizenry of government and court activities that require a response, from warnings of meetings to probate notices to advertisement for bids, foreclosures to hearing notices. Not only are these notices time-sensitive but they must also be permanent and universally accessible. As any archivist will tell you, historically that has meant paper and ink, even if scanned into a database later on.
We all know how vulnerable websites are to tampering, crashing, malware, discontinuation by fickle owners, equipment failure, power failures, domain purchases by entities having nothing to do with the original content, or inability to access on older equipment.
So in spite of the assurance under H.483 that the selected electronic news media would be defined to “reflect industry standards for journalism,” offer “free, convenient and open access to public notices”; be “trustworthy,” user-friendly and secure; provide for permanent archiving of notices; and be those already in common use by “Vermonters,” the best-laid plans often go awry.
And while H.483 admits that the traditional newspaper posting would be preserved to accommodate Vermonters “without adequate internet access,” how will those readers be identified? H.483 instructs the Secretary of State to determine, county by county, the extent of Internet coverage for households. But many will see that as invasive.
H.483 stipulates that a “certified, physical record” will be kept for “public inspection.” In what room in Vermont government would that be kept? How many phone calls, hours, and miles would be required to hold a document in your hands that you could otherwise read over your morning coffee at home?
The Arizona Newspapers Association writes: “Research into readership of newspapers constantly finds that the public expects this type of information to be printed by governments, corporations, etc. And, research tells us that people read it.”
A final consideration: Internet searches compel you to know what you’re looking for with some precision. Readers browsing the newspaper classifieds will encounter important information they would otherwise not have. But where among the bazillion websites or government webpages would they be likely to find it? The Arizona Newspapers Association calls that “secrecy by fractionalization.”
The above questions point to the gaps in these two bills. The mechanisms to carry out the proposal aren’t specified. How will “newspaper of record” – already vague by any definition – be applied to commercial websites? Is there a potential for favoritism? Is there an opening for an eventual state-operated public notice site, pitting the state against the small papers that rely on the income stream generated by public notices?
There are alternatives to these awkwardly drafted bills.
The Arizona Newspapers’ Public Notice database pools legal notices uploaded from participating newspapers throughout the state. This solution reaches a readership worldwide while not impairing the local relevance of the hometown newspapers. It has the benefit of avoiding duplication, a central, non-government source, instant access to those who want it, and preserving the independence of the press.
Worth considering before we get too far down the legislative road.