One of the great things about living in the United States is that our city and county governments are required to keep their citizens informed about their actions. One of the ways they do this is through public notices, which are required by law to be disseminated by an independent third party to a broad audience within the community.
An example of a public notice is a request to rezone a piece of property from residential to commercial. The ramifications of such government action are obvious, and it’s in the public’s interest to be able to monitor and provide input into such activities. Under Virginia law, such public notices are required to be published in a local newspaper.
There have been recent attempts in several states – including Virginia – to change the law so that public notices are no longer required to be published in newspapers. In fact, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has endorsed those efforts in its legislative agenda the past two years. The motivation for eliminating the newspaper publication requirement is typically from one of two sources:
Sometimes it comes from a legislator who doesn’t agree with the editorial position of the newspaper and may seek to remove public notices as a way to get back at them.
And sometimes, it is a sincere approach to save the city or county money.
While saving money may make sense at first blush, when you weigh the impact on the community – losing transparency and the ability to keep citizens informed – the costs are minimal and worth the investment.
Public notices have been around since the first Congress, and newspapers have been the designated recipient of public notices. We now have hundreds of media choices. Broadcast TV, cable and radio often have a representative audience. However, it isn’t cost effective to produce ads and buy airtime for public notices, and those ads don’t explain the complex issues as well. Plus, it isn’t feasible to go back and watch a public notice ad that ran in an earlier time period.
What about a city or county just posting the notices to its website? This is the most significant challenge newspapers often face in the public notice debate, but it carries two significant problems:
Government websites don’t provide the same proactive notice as newspapers. Most newspapers have at least 10 times the audience that city and county websites have.
Newspapers provide independent verification that the notice was published. It is not too far of a reach to imagine a local official “burying a notice” on a website if the notice was thought to be problematic. With a newspaper, it is easy to document when the notice was published in print and online, and exactly what it said.
Virginia law was amended in 2019 to require that public notices printed in newspapers must also be posted to the newspaper’s website and on a statewide website, so a large audience is reached in print and online. Plus, the most interested observers of a community and its government typically read the local newspaper; there are typically few or no other entities that provide news about local government.
Newspapers such as InsideNoVa/Prince William charge a reasonable fee for publishing public notices. Considering the important role that newspapers play in their community, this is a worthwhile investment in an institution that provides news and information that is rarely available elsewhere.
Let your county supervisors and state legislators know that you value being able to access notices in your newspaper and that they are worth the investment. There is a cost to keeping citizens informed, but the costs of not doing so are much higher.
Dean Ridings is CEO of America’s Newspapers.