Public notices, also known as legal notices, are a mainstay of newspaper-industry revenue. But in recent days they’ve come under assault, with at least five state legislatures moving to relax requirements that municipal and state governments post public notices in local newspapers.
Last week for example, a measure to allow state and county agencies to stop publishing certain official notices in Hawaii’s daily newspapers was approved by a state senate committee. The bill would allow Hawaii government agencies to publish some public notices on agencies’ web sites instead of in the newspapers. Agencies argue that they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.
Also last week, the Florida House of Representatives approved a bill that would give governmental agencies the option to publish legal notices on a publicly accessible website of the affected county instead of in a print newspaper.
In Oklahoma on March 1, a state house bill got committee approval for legal notices to be posted on government websites as well as newspaper websites, eliminating the need for print publication.
In Arizona last month, a bill is moving through the legislature to allow the state government not to publish public notices in local newspapers, but rather on local and/or statewide government websites.
Such legislative initiatives have become more common in recent years, as governments struggle to acknowledge reality — print newspapers don’t have the audience reach they once had, and a posting on a government website arguably serves the same objective of widespread community notification that a print newspaper does.
Most of these bills address only public-sector notification requirements, leaving legal and other commercial notifications, which include debtor property auctions, formation and dissolution of corporations, permit and license applications, as is.
According to the Poynter Institute, it’s hard to establish an accurate tally on public-notice revenue. In a 2020 report, Poynter reported that the New Jersey Press Association said the state’s newspapers generated $32.3 million from public notices in 2016. If that were representative of the whole country, then it would mean U.S. newspapers receive hundreds of millions of dollars from public notices, Poynter said.
The broader context here is that public notices have become a critical revenue source for the newspaper industry. Over the last two decades, both classified and display advertising in newspapers has declined precipitously, leaving legal notices —both government and commercial — as a vital revenue source, especially for community newspapers. And this all comes as the need for viable local news institutions has rarely been greater. “News deserts" are proliferating across the country, areas that have either little or no local coverage. "Ghost newspapers,” organizations stripped by massive disruption of resources needed to perform basic functions, might be more common.
Into the vacuum comes the loss of government accountability, plus misinformation and worse, turbo-charged by social media.
However, the Public Notice Resource Center, a Carson City, Nevada, organization dedicated to effective public notice and the public’s right to know, says that 2022 is actually a better year for public notices than last year. “By March 1, 2021, bills had been introduced in 20 states that would have moved all public notice, or a significant percentage of it, from newspapers to government websites,” the organization —which has nearly 40 state newspaper association partners — said. “A year later we’ve seen similar legislation in only six states.
“The Bad news: The bill in one of those states — Florida House Bill 7049 — is a serious threat to become law,” the PNRC said. “The HB-7049 [was] expected to be approved by the full House sometime this week.(It did.)
For the PNRC, the definition of a public notice is crucial. It said that four elements mark a valid public notice: it must be published from an independent party, it must be archivable, accessible, and the publication must be verifiable. If any one of these elements is absent, the PNRC says, the public loses and the notice itself may be challenged.