Reinventing the Newsroom

Back to Basics on Public Notices

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on February 5, 2010

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.

26 Responses

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  1. Megan said, on February 5, 2010 at 11:20 am

    A few months back, I was impressed at the size of the classified section in the Post. Then I realized it was all foreclosure notices. Figured at least the Post was getting something out of it.

    They post public notices on giant yellow posterboard in front of the affected area in Virginia. You still can’t tell what it says as you drive by it, though. Online would be the most user-friendly way to handle this stuff — searchable by location, since it’s not like we know what the sign says.

    It’s just too bad that the proposal to put everything online and not in the newspaper would take more revenue away from an industry that’s already on life support.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 5, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      It is too bad, yes. But the world changes. And papers could change with it instead of thinking things will go differently this time….

  2. Mac Slocum said, on February 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    “… why on earth aren’t news organizations making use of their head start to create these databases and Web sites themselves?”

    Amen to that! Regardless of whether public notices continue to appear in print editions or not, I cannot understand why news companies aren’t developing innovative uses for this type of atomized data.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      It’s just amazing, particularly after Craigslist and Monster.com. The industry remembers the past and is STILL doomed to repeat it.

      Very nice roundup, BTW.

  3. Geordie Wilson said, on February 7, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Two more arguments on behalf of actual printed notices:

    1) Not everybody is wired. In my neck of the woods, dial-up access is still a factor. Sure, there are public libraries with access, and agencies could put terminals in their lobbies, but you’re forcing people to go out of their way and for all practical purposes excluding a not-insignificant chunk of the populace.

    2) Newspapers are a push medium, online databases are a pull medium. Databases are great for the law firms that will pay someone to troll them regularly, but they don’t serve the basic notice function well. You have to know or suspect that something of interest may be out there and go look for it. The whole point of public notices is to get something in front of people. Printed notices still do that better.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 9, 2010 at 4:17 pm

      1) What about all the people who don’t have subscriptions to papers now? Unfortunately for all of us, that’s a not-insignificant chunk of the population too. Aren’t you forcing them to buy something on the off-chance there’s a public notice of interest to them? Isn’t it more fair to give them the chance to find that information for free in a public library?

      2) What’s better for finding something — scanning every day’s or week’s notices in case one of the notices tucked away in tiny type is relevant, or being able to search specifically for it?

      Though we disagree, very much appreciate the note and your writing.

      • Geordie Wilson said, on February 11, 2010 at 10:38 am

        It seems to me that both of these responses confuse the function and effect of a public notice with something more like a classified ad.

        When people know there’s something out there they want, like a car or a sofa, they’ll search online or scan a paper and find it.

        But the fundamental purpose of a public notice is to reach people who don’t know that there’s something they want to know about. That means getting it out in front of as many people as possible.

        To meet that basic purpose, I challenge you to find a public website in your market that has one-tenth the readership (not subscriber count) of your local paper, regardless of how bedraggled it may be.

        As a point of reference, in our core market, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the adults read our print paper every day.

        Beyond that core purpose, it certainly serves the public interest to make sure the notices are accessible to everyone, and it’s a real added benefit if they’re searchable or archivable or what have you. I give an advantage to print newspapers on accessibility and the advantage to online databases for searchability and archivability. But none of that matters if the notice is hiding in plain sight, or, if you’ll excuse the pun, hiding on some plain site.

        • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm

          I don’t think very many people scan public notices out of general interest — I’d wager most of them are looking for something specific (or general, highly local things), and so would be better served by a searchable index.

          For me, searchability and archiveability (now there’s a word) trumps accessibility, and I think over the next few years the Web will win on accessibility as well, if it hasn’t already.

          Interesting discussion — many thanks for engaging….

          • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm

            Oh, and that was a very good pun….

  4. Bill Jacobs said, on February 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Just curious why one would become “so upset” because of a response by “pro-print” arguments? Why not be more upset and righteous with the waste most local governments have through inefficient operations, political jobs, excessive employee benefits that far exceed the private sector? Why spend so much time attacking a proven and efficient method of public notice – which by the way, in most states is posted to the Internet at no cost by newspapers and thus available for Internet search – if you are so concerned about local government budgets and ways to save tax dollars? Sounds a bit disingenuous.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm

      Because I think part of newspapers’ mission is to work for the betterment of our democracy and our society, and they do some of their most valuable work when they expose people, organizations and processes that hamstring that democracy and prevent people from being empowered as part of society.

      I agree that the print method of public notice is proven, but disagree completely that it is efficient — I think it’s clear that online is a better solution. For newspapers to obstruct that — as they’re doing in many states — is in my view a betrayal of that basic mission outlined above, and quite upsetting.

  5. Bill jacobs said, on February 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Agree on the mission for a better democracy so why are you fighting so hard against that goal? Glad you agree print method is proven. Why is it not efficient if newspapers print and upload to Internet? Covers both ends does it not? Which then brings us back to my first question.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 9, 2010 at 8:21 pm

      What newspapers are doing that? WSJ.com never did. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen public notices in any of the online versions of newspapers I’ve read, or even noticed a link for them. Public notices run in the print version of my local paper (The Brooklyn Paper), but I don’t see where they are online. Do you have examples of papers that do this? Are they representative?

  6. Bill Jacobs said, on February 10, 2010 at 12:00 am

    If you will check state newspaper press association web sites you will find a public notice link to search a data base of the public notices in newspapers within the particular state. Representative? I think you will find newspaper participation in the 90% range. You might also click on the classified advertising link on newspaper web sites, you will likely find a search for public notices which include all the public notices published in that newspaper. All of this is free to the public.

    I cannot comment on the WSJ, but I think you will find the vast majority of community newspapers across the country as well as the metro papers offer this free service.

    Here is a link to newspapers in New York State.
    http://ny.mypublicnotices.com/PublicNotice.asp

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 10, 2010 at 6:31 am

      Thanks Bill, will check it out.

      • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

        OK, checked it out, and while the database’s fine in terms of categories, searchability, etc., there aren’t nearly enough papers for this to be a representative resource. For example, I live in Kings County (Brooklyn), and the sole listed paper for our 2.5 million residents is the Canarsie Courier.

        Maybe Brooklyn’s an outlier, but that doesn’t say 90% range to me, or suggest that this is an answer.

  7. Bill jacobs said, on February 11, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Try looking outside Brooklyn. However, of those 2.5 million residents who do not subscribe to the Canarsie Courier, they still have online access to public notices via the Courier’s web site, do they not?

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      And a fat lot of good it will do those 2.5 million people: There are no notices listed for the Canarsie Courier.

      FAIL.

  8. Bill jacobs said, on February 11, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Fail! Hmmmm. That’s what my 18 year old says. Back to responsible debate. So the Canarsie Courier fits in the 10%. Now I have given you a place to research as you requested. Now do what a responsible journalist does, dig into the details and find out what the other 90% are doing. Then report the facts and not your opinion.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

      Bill, your proposed strategy didn’t work for the first place I checked — where I and 2,499,000 other people live. That’s fact enough for this responsible journalist to reach the conclusion that the approach doesn’t work. It could be this threadbare quilt has an intact patch or two somewhere else, but that doesn’t mean it’ll keep me warm at night.

      So, yes: FAIL.

  9. Bill jacobs said, on February 12, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks for confirming what I originally suspected and answering my question about your anger!

  10. Bill Jacobs said, on February 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Jason
    Others might be interested in doing some research so here is a sampling of links where public notices are available free to consumers. All of this provided by newspapers in these states.

    http://www.alabamalegals.com/
    http://www.ananews.com/pubnot/index.html
    http://www.publicnoticeads.com/AR/
    http://www.publicnoticeads.com/DE/
    http://www.floridapublicnotices.com/
    http://www.georgiapublicnotice.com/
    http://www.indianapublicnotices.com/
    http://www.publicnoticeads.com/NJ/

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 17, 2010 at 9:06 am

      Sorry Bill, the spam filter caught that one because of the multiple links. Thanks for it.

  11. Mark Moskow said, on December 6, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    People are naturally afraid of change. Doing it “the old way” is safe. It requires no thought, but is not what’s best for society. Technology is continously changing our world every day, like it or not.

    A similar situation is going on in NY where companies that form LLCs must pay like $1,000 to publish the formation notice in newspapers. Many of the LLCs are small business owners who would like less expsenive alternatives such as the Internet. In most localities, even rural ones, the internet has greater penetration than the local newspaper. There is a site called http://www.legal-notice.org that is doing something interesting. For any LLC that is filed in New York State, they are publishing all LLC notices for free online. While the current law still requires publication in newspapers, it’s great to see how easy the “new world” will be as soon as the law catches up with technology. Instead of putting it in the hands of the government, why not replace expensive newspaper requirements with “designated” publication sites like this one approved by the government?

  12. Frank Kendall said, on December 7, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Being originally from New York, I took a look at Legal-Notice.org. What jumps out at me is the section on the homepage that says The LLC Publication cost to small business in NY. I think this should trump all arguments.

    If using the Internet instead of killing trees for paper will save thousands/millions of dollars, what is there to debate? Also, I do not subscribe to any newspapers, but do have the Internet like every person I know. Seems to me it’s just a matter of time before publishing legal notices moves online.

  13. Fred Mark said, on December 7, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Agreed Frank,
    If http://Legal-Notice.org can publish notices for free, why shouldn’t all of the newspapers? It would be a good public service. As of now, it is a just an impediment to small emerging businesses. The counter tallying how much small business could have saved small businesses has reached $3.2 million since their inception. Good luck to them, I hope they get designated as a publication. In the month or so that http://legal-notice.org/ has been operating that $3.2 million could have been used by emerging businesses to hire 80 people for a year and number continues to grow. The state of New York needs jobs. Why should we continue to throw money at private enterprises to “publish” notices when any one can publish?


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