We're becoming more tech-centric, but it's still too early to take public notices out of the newspapers.
The Roanoke Times wrote an editorial in late December saying that governments should post notices of special public meetings in the newspapers, not just on government websites, libraries or text alerts.
First, a clarification. We're talking here about those statutorily mandated public hearing meetings, like the ones held before certain zoning decisions are made, or for school redistricting, etc. We're not talking about the ordinary-course-of-business meetings of councils, boards or commissions.
Advance public notice of these latter meetings is governed by FOIA. The former meetings (or hearings) are governed by other parts of the Code of Virginia, and usually affect a specific project, a distinct piece of property or a certain process.
The Roanoke Times correctly points out that, "The newspaper ad is the only permanent, third-party way to circulate a notice broadly. The others all are open to abuse by public officials with lax standards for meeting legal notification requirements. A webpage's time stamp can be altered; a broadcast announcement is ephemeral."
The paper also acknowledges that it has a financial interest in the continuation of these public notice ads. Some may thus dismiss the newspaper's concerns as mere self-interest.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government has no such interest, though. Our coalition of members includes press and broadcast, yes, but more so, we represent citizens, advocacy organizations, government groups, elected officials and more. Our 27-member board reserves a majority of its seats (15) for at-large members of the public. Two of our four elected officers work in government.
Despite our lack of financial interest in the publication of public notices in the newspapers, the VCOG board of directors has repeatedly supported the current practice of required newspaper publication.
As recently as October, the VCOG board reaffirmed its position that "the placement of legal notices in newspapers remains important to providing the broadest publication of vital information to residents."
The board was particularly concerned about the impact the move away from print publication would have on rural areas underserved by Internet service (to say nothing of broadband access).
Those in favor of making the switch away from newspaper publication usually make two points: (1) it costs too much, and (2) newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.
Everyone understands the first point, which is particularly forceful in these austere times. As research from the Virginia Press Association has shown, however, the amount spent on legal notice advertising is minuscule (a fraction less than 1 percent of Chesapeake's budget when VPA checked in 2009).
Cost is always an important factor, but the numbers don't exist in a vacuum: the cost is weighed against the public benefit.
As for declining newspaper readership, it is true that fewer readers are picking up the physical newspaper in favor of getting their news electronically, through smart phones, the Internet, RSS, etc., but there are two giant caveats to consider: (1) we may be using our phones and web browsers to read the news, but the news we are reading is still overwhelmingly coming from the same newspapers we once read on paper; and (2) there is still a digital divide in this country: easy Internet access is still beyond the reach (financially or ability) of many poor, rural, minority and/or elderly members of the community. Newspapers are cheaper and easier to use for these groups; and several people can read a single copy of a paper left in a diner, a break room at work, or on public transportation.
We are most certainly marching towards a world where electronic communication is going to predominate. At VCOG we thus encourage government to keep exploring alternative means of notifying the public of critical hearings. But we should take these first steps in conjunction with publication in the newspapers. It is too soon to give government the option of eliminating newspaper publication.
Until we reach a critical mass of electronic communication, and until the public is accustomed to looking for notices in places other than where they traditionally have been for decades, the best way to reach the broadest swath of the public is to continue publishing public notices in the state's newspapers, supplemented by use of non-traditional, electronic means.