By Jack McElroy
In recent years, the General Assembly has considered amending the way public notices are handled in Tennessee. This is understandable. The communications world is changing, and newspapers, where many public notices historically have been published, are in transition.
But the assumption that government could save money and still adequately notify the public by simply posting notices on government websites is flawed.
The idea presupposes that web postings would be a cheap and easy alternative to newspaper publication. Yet, many local governments in Tennessee don’t maintain active websites now. Bringing web operations up to speed and keeping them there across Tennessee would entail large hidden expenses that legislators seeking to end newspaper notices largely have ignored.
More important, though, is the effectiveness of public notice.
The United States has a long history of requiring the government to announce its business through newspapers. The first Congress meeting in New York required that all bills, orders, resolutions and votes be published in at least three papers, and when, a few years later, Tennessee adopted its own constitution, it required the Legislature to publish any amendments proposed by the General Assembly.
In more recent years, lawmakers required notices alerting the public to meetings, foreclosures, elections, auctions, changes in land use and many other matters of general concern. This was done to assure that due process of law was carried out and that government was held accountable to the citizenry it represented.
Shifting public notices to government websites would undermine these goals. Without newspaper publication, a permanent record of notice is lost, and putting officials in charge of their own methods of notification would open the door to possible manipulation.
Also, notices on government websites simply don’t reach the public the way notices in newspaper do.
While many newspapers have seen their print circulations decline, their overall audiences have grown in recent years, and they still remain the pre-eminent medium for conveying such information to the public. Recent Newspaper Association of America research showed that 70 percent of U.S. adults had read a newspaper or a newspaper website in the previous week. Research by the Tennessee Press Association last year showed that 45 percent of Tennessee households bought newspapers.
On the other hand, many Tennesseans, especially the elderly, still don’t have Internet access. ConnectTN found that only 59 percent of those over 65 owned a computer, and only 42 percent had access to broadband. A recent AARP survey found that only two out of five people over 50 feel comfortable using the Internet,
Newspapers, furthermore, are a “push” platform, one that projects information out into the public where it is noticed even by passive readers. Notices on government websites can be found only by those who go looking for them, most likely insiders and special interests.
None of this is to say that the Internet isn’t a good source of information. For many people nowadays it is the preferred method, and for them, professionally maintained newspaper websites remain a better option than many government sites, as well.
During this year’s legislative session, the Tennessee Press Association will be supporting a bill to require all newspapers that print public notices to also post them online and to submit them to a central public notice site maintained by the TPA.
This will offer the best of both worlds, assuring that the publication of notices remains independent, dependable and verifiable while making the notices available to the greatest number of citizens possible.
■ Jack McElroy is editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Jan. 20-26 is Public Notice Week in Tennessee.