This year marks Tennessee Press Association’s 13th annual celebration of Public Notice Week in Tennessee. The following columns by Ken Paulson and Richard Karpel are for any TPA member to publish during Public Notice Week.
We encourage you to write your own columns and editorials emphasizing the importance of public notice in keeping citizens informed. Additional resources are available from the Public Notice Resource Center at www.pnrc.net.
Links to ad campaign to support public notice print and web ads
Shop local: Protecting the free flow of public information
By Ken Paulson
Photo of Ken Paulson available at https://u9k737.p3cdn1.secureserver.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Paulson-Ken.jpg
There’s admirable support for independent local businesses these days.
Many expected Amazon to put local bookstores out of business, but after a steady decline in the aughts, independent stores have had a resurgence, fueled in large part by a sense of community and the need to support businesses in our own backyards.
We’ve seen the same thing with independent record stores. Though few saw the revival of vinyl coming, there has long been a concerted effort to support local record stores because of their value to the community. Against the odds, many independent record stores are thriving, thanks in part to Record Story Day promotions that bring local customers to their doors.
Of course, there’s also the ubiquitous campaigns to “Buy Local.” Although local businesses can offer unique merchandise and enhanced customer service, a driving force behind these campaigns is that we should support businesses in our hometowns. Neighbors support neighbors.
The most independent and local business in any community, though, is the local newspaper. Stores come and go, malls open and close, but the local newspaper is often the only institution in town that has been there for decades, serving our parents and grandparents before us. Local newspapers need our support.
Of course, the most immediate way to help is to subscribe. For some reason, Americans (and many around the globe) have decided that news should be free. It’s not a coincidence that we’re a nation long on polarizing opinions and short on insight. Every dollar spent on news is an investment in the community, and in turn, a more informed populace.
Just as independent record stores and bookstores have niches that set them apart, so too do local newspapers. One of those is the publication of local legal notices. These concern budgets, public meetings, election dates, foreclosures, property auctions, and other important public matters, and their publication is often mandated by law.
It’s a natural fit for newspapers, the local business committed to keeping an eye on government and looking out for the community’s interests. The revenue from those ads also helps underwrite this critical watchdog work.
Inevitably, though, government officials try to tamper with this ideal arrangement. During my tenure as dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, I received a call from a local legislator who knew of my past work as editor of USA Today and an advocate for transparency. He explained that he thought it would be a great idea to have those public notices published and posted online, saving the costs associated with publishing the notices in a local newspaper. He asked whether I thought would be a good step, and my reply boiled down to “Only if you don’t care about democracy.” I still don’t know why he thought I would be an ally.
This was not an isolated effort. There are ongoing efforts by those required to pay for the public notices to cut newspapers out of the mix, creating a government outlet to publish the information.
Think about that. Public legal notices are designed to keep the public informed about what government is up to. Do we turn that responsibility over to government officials, while also taking revenue away from the one local business dedicated to keeping government honest?
The Tennessee Newspaper Association already offers a one-stop online location for legal notices throughout the state, culled from local newspapers, and offered at no cost to the public. The system works, and maintains a steady revenue source for the local newspapers that keep us informed.
The week of Feb. 6 includes National Yogurt Day and Send to Card to a Friend Day and yes, a celebration of the value of public notices in the state of Tennessee. With all due respect to fermented milk and friendships. The latter is a very big deal.
Consider stopping at your local bookstore and picking up the work of a local author. You may want to dust off that turntable and refresh your record collection at a local shop. And in any way you can, offer your support for local newspapers, and democracy to boot.
Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center and Dean Emeritus at Middle Tennessee State University
Let’s not put the foxes in charge of the henhouse
By Richard Karpel
Photo of Richard Karpel available at https://u9k737.p3cdn1.secureserver.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Karpel_Richard.jpg
Politicians don’t like to be forced to share information. Some are more forthcoming than others but every last one of them — regardless of party — prefer to shape their own narrative without outside interference.
That’s why public notice laws requiring government officials to publish factual information about their plans and actions — meetings, budget and zoning proposals, school district reports, etc. — are under perpetual assault in state legislatures. Unfortunately, legislation introduced recently in Nashville would give lawmakers the control they seek. Senate Bill 525 (the House version is HB 300) would authorize local officials to hide such notices on county websites instead of publishing them in local newspapers and on newspaper websites where citizens are more likely to see them.
It’s a dangerous proposal.
Public notice laws represent the best of self-government. Along with open-meeting and freedom of information laws, they’re an important part of the three-legged stool of government transparency. They ensure that citizens have access to information they need to participate in the governance of their communities. They’re an essential element of our fragile democracy.
Those in favor of changing such laws claim they should be published on the internet instead of newspapers. That’s a specious argument because the law in Tennessee already requires them to be published on the internet — on newspaper websites. And newspaper websites almost always get far more traffic than county websites.
The measure being considered in Nashville also would completely eliminate the print component of public notice even though print provides notice far more effectively than the web. When we read a newspaper, the tactile, contemplative experience and the size of its pages encourage us to find information we didn’t expect to see. That serendipitous process guarantees that notices in local newspapers will be seen by many people in the community who didn’t pick up the paper seeking them.
We’re more goal-oriented on the internet, visiting websites for a particular reason. Digital interfaces tend to be unidirectional and are often focused on the sensational. Public notices don’t stand a chance in that environment; they get lost and are easily hidden. Moreover, the massive migration from desktop computers to small-screen mobile devices has exacerbated the problem. Who’s going to be able to find an important government notice on a smartphone app or browser?
The internet has other vulnerabilities that make it a poor choice as an exclusive venue for notice. Newspaper notices can’t be altered once they’re published. By contrast, notices that are digitally published are fraught with the potential for modification. Websites can be hacked and altered; government sites are especially vulnerable. They can be taken off-line through normal service disruptions, extended power outages, denial-of-service attacks or ransomware demands. Public notices on websites can even be fabricated to cover up the fact they were never published. That’s why courts make it more difficult to introduce digital evidence.
The mutability of digital information raises another vital issue exposing the folly of SB 525. Do we really want to put the government fox in charge of the informational henhouse?
As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying: “Trust, but verify.”
Requiring independent, third-party newspapers with a financial and civic interest in ensuring public notices run in accordance with the law was our legislative ancestors’ way of providing verification. Giving government officials the means to hide public notice information that may be embarrassing or simply doesn’t suit their interests, is a surefire way to guarantee they’re going to do it. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people; it’s simply human nature to seek to avoid embarrassment or criticism. Foxes aren’t inherently evil animals; we just know they like to eat hens so we plan accordingly.
The inescapable truth is there are too many ways for public officials to hide information on websites under their exclusive control. And removing newspapers from the public notice process would eliminate an important check on that tendency and exponentially increase the risk that vital civic matters will be hidden from the public.
Swapping the current system of notice via newspaper and newspaper website for government website notice is a bad trade that will leave more people less informed. That’s why SB 525 is a bad trade for Tennesseans.
Richard Karpel, is executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a non-profit organization that provides education and research on the importance of effective official notice
***************. PAST YEARS PUBLIC NOTICE WEEK MATERIALS ************************
By Rick Thomason. Photo of Rick Thomason
President, Tennessee Press Association
For TPA’s Public Notice Week, Jan. 23-29, 2022
This country, as well as the State of Tennessee, enjoy a long history of open government. Our Founding Fathers insisted that laws, resolutions and other such actions by the U.S. Congress be published in newspapers as public notices.
When Tennessee became a state, its first constitution also appropriately included such provisions.
More than 230 years ago legislators recognized the importance of citizens knowing how their new government was working for them. Our governments – at all levels – continue to evolve, and it is as important in 2022 as it was in 1789 that citizens remain notified of the critical maneuverings of those elected to make decisions on their behalf.
Our republic has always been grounded in the principles of democracy where citizens have the opportunity – and dare I say, obligation? – to keep an eye on government functions that impact them every day. And there has been no greater nor more important avenue for that scrutiny than public notices published in this nation’s newspapers, which provide a searchable history of notices.
But not every legislator sees the good in published public notices. In fact, over the last couple of decades some lawmakers have fought to take public notices from newspapers and move them to government-run websites. The reasons are suspect at best and the arguments are fraught with holes.
Some lawmakers argue that public notices placed only online will broaden the reach of public notices. On the surface it sounds like those individuals are looking out for the best interest of their constituents, right? Not so fast. The truth is that millions who now can see public notices in newspapers will no longer see them because they do not have, nor do they want, internet access. This is particularly true among the elderly who are largely avid newspaper readers and those who live in rural areas.
Plus, in 2013 it was made law in Tennessee that newspapers develop a statewide site to which all published public notices would be uploaded. The Tennessee Press Association created that website that is available to all citizens. So not only do newspapers in Tennessee already publish public notices in print and on their own websites, but those public notices are also posted on a statewide site, too. And again, that is by law.
Imagine if every town, city and county had to put that technology and the manpower behind it in place.
Lawmakers will point to ‘cost savings’ if all public notices are moved online to government-run websites. Again, it sounds good in theory, but the reality is that state and local governments aren’t equipped to properly post and distribute public notices online.
Building websites with the appropriate capabilities isn’t easy nor is it inexpensive. Maintaining them is even more expensive and, frankly, in this day and age few towns, cities and counties have the financial wherewithal to add more layers of needless work.
Under the guise of ‘broader distribution of public notices’ (when they actually want them less visible), some lawmakers will say that newspapers are no longer an effective way to distribute these important messages. Again, nice try. But again, it is an argument full of holes and misinformation.
While newspaper print distribution has shown a decline over the last couple of decades, mostly in urban areas, newspaper audiences are larger than they have ever been because of digital access. Exactly where these lawmakers say they want public notices – online. But the difference is that the online audience for newspapers is not only consistent, but it’s growing and growing consistently.
And guess where newspapers place their public notices? Yep. Online. A 2013 law mandated that we do that at no extra charge.
But wait! There’s more! (No, this isn’t an informercial.) The Tennessee Press Association already collects and aggregates public notices on one public website that was just recently updated to make it easier than ever to use. So, in this state our public notices get twice the online exposure already.
Let’s not make the public go on a hunting expedition for public notices. Newspapers already publish and distribute them even more effectively than our Founding Fathers could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
This is Public Notice Week in Tennessee. Public notices are an equal third of the triangle that make up the ideological foundation of our collaborative government. The other thirds are open meetings and access to public records. Support us in our efforts to keep public notices visible and cost effective. The old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ certainly applies here.
Rick Thomason is the 2021-22 president of the Tennessee Press Association and publisher of the Kingsport Times News and Johnson City Press.
By Deborah Fisher for Public Notice Week 2020 Fisher headshot available at: https://u9k737.p3cdn1.secureserver.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Deborah.Fisher.jpg
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
When I talk with citizen groups in Tennessee about open government, people tell me they want more information about what their government is doing, not less.
An informed citizenry results in better and more accountable government. But in plain language, people just want to know what’s going on, particularly when it affects their lives directly.
How do people get informed? How does information about what government is doing flow to the public? And in this day and age, what methods are reliable, trustworthy and accurate?
One reliable way is through the public notice laws. Government entities in Tennessee are required by law to publish public notices in local newspapers about a range of activities — public sales, regulations, bid lettings, meetings, seizures, ordinances and elections.
These statutes have developed over time because lawmakers have thought certain information was important enough that government entities need to actively reach out and let people know.
The same community newspaper where you find local obituaries, high school football game photos, news coverage of government meetings and stories about new businesses in town is where you can reliably find public notices.
Carol Daniels, executive director of the Tennessee Press Association, said that a recent examination by her organization of circulation of printed newspapers in Tennessee showed that a majority reached at least 70 percent of households in their home county each week.
Clearly, such newspapers that carry uniquely local news about their communities are still an effective way to deliver a local government message, too.
So what about the web? We all know it’s a powerful tool when we are searching for information. Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has continued to advocate that government entities that have a website should post information to their website. We also supported a provision inserted into the law in 2013 that required newspapers that publish public notices in their printed edition to publish for free the same notice, including any maps and other exhibits, in its entirety in their digital editions.
This law, which went into effect in April 2014, also required the newspapers to include a link to these digital notices on the home page of their website, and required a statewide website to be established as a joint venture of these newspapers where all public notices in all newspapers in the state would reside free for anyone to peruse.
Here’s a link to that website, if you want to check it out. http://www.publicnoticeads.com/TN/search/searchnotices.asp
One advantage for the public when a third-party publishes public notices — whether on an aggregated website or printed newspaper — is that they create a one-stop shop for the public, despite the notices coming from various government entities, banks and courts in a county or jurisdiction. Notices about government meetings, public hearings or budget information can be found along with other required legal notices, such as foreclosures, lien sales and court notices.
Put another way by Daniels: “The public would need to go and look on a dozen or so websites per day or week to get the same information that should be in their local paper. The difference is the information is delivered to the public versus you going and looking for it and knowing where to look.”
Some worry, with the rise of social media, that local community newspapers will disappear and no longer provide their historical role as a central interchange for hyper-local information. In some parts of the country, so-called “news deserts” have emerged where local community newspapers have closed shop and no one has replaced their function of providing independent, professional news coverage of local happenings.
While such loss has been alarming, in Tennessee, community newspapers remain an important local business in a majority of our counties.
These businesses contribute both to community life and commerce. Their unique role in providing effective and efficient outreach for public notice remains vital.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit entity that promotes transparency in government and education on public records and open meetings laws.
By Jack McElroy for Public Notice Week 2019
When the first Congress met in New York City in 1789, it required that all bills, orders, resolutions and votes be published in newspapers so citizens could know what was happening in their new republic.
A few years later, when Tennessee became a state and adopted its own constitution, it required the legislature to publish any amendment approved by the General Assembly.
Alerting citizens to the activities of government has been fundamental to the operation of our democracy since its beginnings, and newspapers always have played a central role, spreading word of public sales, regulations, bid lettings, meetings, seizures, ordinances, elections, and much more.
In recent years, though, some lawmakers have pushed to move public notices out of newspapers and into government websites. This is questionable public policy for many reasons.
First, the assumption that such a change will automatically save tax dollars is dubious. Maintaining websites is not cheap or easy, and many local governments in Tennessee still have only a limited online presence, much less an active web administrator. Bringing digital operations up to speed in 95 counties and keeping them there would involve expenditures that the legislature can’t ignore.
Next, some lawmakers may be under the mistaken impression that newspaper no longer are an effective way to reach the public. Although it’s true that print circulation has declined in recent years, Tennessee newspapers still deliver about 4 million copies each week to more than 1.2 million households. Limiting public notices to digital platforms will cut off many Tennesseans, especially senior citizens who are not comfortable with the internet and rely on their printed newspapers.
Besides, by placing announcements in newspapers, the government gets widespread online distribution as well. Under a law that went into effect in 2014, newspapers that print public notices must also post them online at no extra charge. The Tennessee Press Association aggregates all of those online notices onto one, easy-to-use, central statewide public notice site.
Using newspapers to publish public notices also assures that due process of law is upheld. Permanent, physical records of important announcements can prevent costly legal disputes if the issue of notification is later questioned.
Public notices are especially critical to holding government accountable. They let citizens monitor the actions of officials and be alerted to opportunities to weigh in on issues. Having a neutral third party involved is essential. Otherwise, agencies may be tempted to downplay notices of controversy or announce lucrative opportunities only to chosen insiders.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that newspapers are a “push” technology. They spread information into homes where it can be passively discovered even if it wasn’t being sought. Sticking notices somewhere on government websites changes that dynamic. Finding information then becomes a hunting expedition, making it more likely that average citizens will miss out.
Several years ago, one lawmaker became convinced of the importance of public notice by a constituent who learned that his son was in financial distress only by finding a foreclosure notice in the paper. The younger man had been too embarrassed to seek the help he needed, but his father was able to come to the rescue in time to save his son’s home, thanks to public notice.
Each year, the Tennessee Press Association tries to bring attention to this issue during Public Notice Week. This year, that’s Jan. 20-26.
Remember, public notice is the third leg of the stool upon which rests our participatory government. The other two are open meetings and access to public records.
If any of those legs gets wobbly, citizens will no longer have a stable seat at the table of democracy. So let’s keep public notice in newspapers strong.
Jack McElroy is executive editor of the News Sentinel