Back to Basics on Public Notices
Yesterday at Nieman Journalism Lab, Mac Slocum offered a roundup of the arguments for requiring governments to continue printing public notices in newspapers instead of doing so online, summarizing the case as made by newspaper-industry lobbyist Tonda Rush. I commented quickly (and a bit viscerally) — and then found myself coming back to why, exactly, I’d gotten so upset.
Granted, the pro-printing arguments seemed pretty weak, and sleeping on them hasn’t exactly changed my mind.
The first pro-print argument is that there would be startup costs associated with moving public notices to the Web, and the cost-savings wouldn’t be very much — 1% to 2% of county and municipal budgets at best, Rush says. The startup costs seem like a red herring. According to Slocum, 40 states have proposed letting local governments opt for the Web, only to be opposed furiously by newspaper lobbyists. I have a certain reflexive cynicism about government efficiency, but I doubt that local governments would be clamoring to put public notices online if the startup costs were self-defeatingly high. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear that my county had figured out a relatively painless way to save 1% to 2% of its budget.
The second argument is that print has a permanence online doesn’t. It’s at least interesting to hear this claim unaccompanied by rhapsodies about the crinkle of paper and the clink of spoons at the breakfast table, but beyond that I’m unmoved. By this measure, why not record public records on stone tablets, as a safeguard against some world-wide conflagration that would turn our archived paper and microfilm to drifts of ash and sad little curls of plastic? A secondary argument is that litigation favors iron-clad documentation, and the print model is better for those purposes. That’s a better case, but I’m rarely persuaded when the reason to keep something boils down to an inefficient model that hasn’t kept up with the times. Change the model!
The third argument is that you can’t trust the government to publish and maintain official records. Frankly, here either somebody’s tin-foil hat has fallen off or people are being awfully disingenuous. If you subscribe to this paranoid mindset, does the idea of newspapers as watchdogs make things any better?
But let’s back up. Let’s go back to the question that should always be asked when adapting to the Web: If we were starting today, would we do this? This time, though, let’s not think about it from a newspaper-revenue point of view. Rather, let’s think about it from a public-records point of view.
We want public records to be official, to be visible and to be discoverable later on. And we want accessing them to be as easy as possible for as many people as possible.
OK, so what’s the best way to accomplish this? We might say, “I think the best way is to pay newspaper publishers to run these notices in extremely small type to the right of this week’s listings of acoustic guitar players appearing in coffee shops and below the syndicated parenting advice.” But it seems more likely that we’d say, “Let’s put these public notices in a database so they’re searchable and publish them to the Web, so interested citizens can find them whenever they like with a couple of mouse clicks and a bit of typing.” (And while we’re on the subject, why on earth aren’t news organizations making use of their head start to create these databases and Web sites themselves? Did we really learn nothing from Craigslist and Monster.com?)
And now we get to what made me mad.
Newspapers’ champions often tout the press as an engine of a healthy democracy, and papers as having a civic mission. And I mostly agree with that stuff. (Minus the “paper” part of it, anyway.) But if you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk. Doesn’t making public records as visible and searchable as possible improve the health of democracy too? Newspapers rarely look better than when they’re taking powerful industry groups to task for letting their own bottom lines obstruct the public good. How is that not exactly what’s happening here?
I believe in news organizations having a sense of civic mission. I don’t think that’s naïve or corny or out of date. But if your sense of civic mission only extends as far as the boundaries of your own parochial interests, it’s not worth very much.