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The future of public notices in newspapers depends on you

By Jason Sanford, ONMA manager of communications and content

Public notices in the United States are under siege like never before.

In Florida, the legislature is considering House Bill 1235, which would remove legal notices from newspapers and place them instead on government web sites. Idaho is considering legislation so some state contracts don't have to be published as public notices. The Utah legislature earlier this year turned down a bill to loosen public notice legislation, but the bill was defeated by only a narrow margin.

Over the last few years legislatures in dozens of states have introduced bills to weaken or do away with the legal requirement that public notices be published in newspapers. While none of these bills have passed, one in North Carolina came close, being vetoed by the state’s governor. The legislature then passed a bill doing away with the requirement for notices in one of the North Carolina’s most populous counties.

Arguments for taking public notices out of newspapers and putting them on government websites often focus on issues of expense and expedience. However, the people making these arguments ignore that government websites have significantly less traffic than the combined print and electronic versions of newspapers. The public is also far less likely to discover a notice on a government website than while reading a newspaper’s print or electronic version.

In short, removing public notices from newspapers is a perfect way for governments to ensure the public is both less informed and doesn’t see the very notices which can affect their lives.

Fortunately, Ohio hasn’t experienced significant legislation in recent years to remove public notices from newspapers. One major reason is legislators, the public, and government entities appear to be pleased with the 2014 law setting up as the state’s official website for notices in Ohio.

That legislative change resulted from the Ohio News Media Association working with the governor’s office and the General Assembly to both designate Public Notices Ohio as the state’s official notice website and eliminate a state government-run notice website. Under the law that was subsequently passed, notices in Ohio were still required to be published in newspapers but Ohio newspapers were also required to upload their notices to Public Notices Ohio at no additional cost to government entities.

Since this change nearly one million notices have been uploaded and published on Public Notices Ohio.

In my role as manager of Public Notices Ohio, I receive several calls each week from members of the public and employee of various government agencies, including cities and counties governed by the state’s public notice laws.

The members of the public I speak with are generally pleased to discover there’s a centralized website where they can search through and find public notices across Ohio. In particular they like the convenience and ease of using our website. Add in that the site is run without added costs to taxpayers and it’s a win-win all around.

However, when I speak with people who work for different government entities, they are usually wondering why a notice they published in a newspaper didn’t show up on our website. In a way this shows how happy they are with Public Notices Ohio – when a county or city publishes a public notice in their local newspaper of record, they now expect it to also immediately be available on the state’s official public notice website.

Newspapers upload hundreds of thousands of notices each year to Public Notices Ohio and only a few aren’t immediately published to the site. And when I contact newspapers any problems are quickly resolved. However, this points to how important it is that newspapers ensure all notices are uploaded to our website – people notice when they aren’t.

It’s also vitally important for newspapers to the treat their government public notice clients like all their other major advertising clients. Respond promptly to your government client’s needs. Help them find the best way to share their public notice with your readers. Let them know you’ll be uploading the notice to Public Notices Ohio at no added cost to the government.

In addition, newspapers should periodically spot check to make sure there are no uploading glitches and remember to manually upload notices that run outside your regular feed such as in preprints or display ads.

My message to Ohio’s newspapers is don’t take your paper’s government clients for granted. Our state hasn’t seen a recent push to remove public notices from newspapers. By working hard to keep your newspaper’s government clients happy, you can help ensure that this doesn’t happen.

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