When’s the last time you checked your newspaper for a public notice? Those are ads in the classified section that let you know about things like public hearings or a request for government bids. In North Carolina, local municipalities are required to pay to post them in newspapers. Many state lawmakers like Republican Representative Chuck McGrady say it’s not worth it for taxpayers since, they say, the internet and social media make it easy to spread the word.
"I think the idea of how we get notices out most effectively is changing and the technology is very different now than back when we originally adopted the law," said McGrady during a recent floor debate.
Initially, a bill proposed lifting that requirement in all counties throughout the state. The bill that finally made it through only did so for Guilford County. Republican Representative John Faircloth, who represents parts of that county, said he sees it as a pilot program.
“This gives us I think a good look at whether or not this type of communication with the public is the way to go for the future,” said Faircloth during a recent floor debate.
So how much revenue do public notices generate for newspapers?
"That would vary from paper to paper. One of the things that we looked at with this local bill that came up is what some of the governments are spending on these notices. The City of Greensboro last year they spent about $69,000 in notices," says Phil Lucey, excecutive director of the North Carolina Press Association.
LUCEY: The argument that we heard, which was inaccurate, was that this is some sort of a subsidy for newspapers and it's not because for a few reasons. One, these are not just all government notices that are placed in papers. There's also the private notices as well. And it's a very small portion of most government’s budgets of what they're required to publish to inform the citizens of what's going on.
TERRY: But haven't some papers come out and said that they may have to shut down if they don't get the revenue from these legal notices?
LUCEY: Yes, we did see some of the headlines on that. And, you know, there are smaller papers throughout the state that their business models have changed over the years. This is not 100 percent of their revenue, but they’d take a pretty big hit on it. Where some of the larger metro papers may be able to take on some of that hit either through layoffs or cutting back a little bit. The smaller community papers just don't have that resource.
TERRY: Don't these notices effectively subsidize those papers if they say they'll shut down?
LUCEY: Well, it's a good portion of their revenues. It's not 100 percent. But again it's going to be hard for some of these smaller newspapers to be able to withstand that and, in turn, these notices that are published in the newspapers. They're providing a service for that local county government.
TERRY: First, they wanted to drop a legal notice requirement for newspapers in all 100 counties of North Carolina. But the final law that actually passed just affects Guilford County. Why do you think they decided to target that county?
LUCEY: We heard it in debates…why is this targeting just one county. And specifically some lawmakers asked, “why is this really targeted at one newspaper?”
TERRY: Specifically a Greensboro News and Record columnist says this law is an attack on that particular paper. Do you see it that way?
LUCEY: We've asked that question to the original sponsors and to Senator Wade…if this is something that is personal and we couldn't get an answer back on that. So I think you'd have to ask the senator what the motivation is for bringing this up year after year.
TERRY: And you're talking about Senator Trudy Wade who was the lawmaker who has really been pushing for this bill.
LUCEY: That’s correct. And when we asked the question either in meetings or in the News and Record as well, we get the answer well this is about transparency and went back to there's 85,000 plus people just in this county alone that wouldn't have access to these notices and putting them on government sites then also puts the onus on those citizens to go and seek out these notices. Being in newspapers, whether it's print or online, pushes those notices out to the public. That's an important part of this process.
TERRY: If they're just not used to going to municipal web sites maybe they will become used to going to them, if that's where they're published?
LUCEY: That's going to be a big change in learning. I doubt that a lot of your listeners may even know what the top of their head the URL to the local county web site is the News and Record put out a story a while back that last year they had about 32 million visitors to their site. The county Web site had about four million. And so we're reaching a much bigger audience in print and online combined than any local county websites would ever get.