With school dollars at risk, newspapers fight online legal notices

Even a modest size school district spends tens of thousands to have legal notices published in local newspapers. Now, lawmakers in Washington state are wondering if the internet might be an economical substitute for print.

Advocates for community newspaper publishers are lining up against a bill now moving through the Washington state senate. It would count internet publications as “legal newspapers,” meaning schools would be able to post legal notices on the web as a cost-free substitute to posting them in print publications.

Cities, which must also publish legal notices, are pushing for the bill. Community newspaper publishers are fighting it, saying that the printed page is still the best way to let the community know what’s happening.

State senators on Washington’s State and Local Governments Committee heard testimony on the bill Jan. 19 and seemed to like the idea.

“We need to move into the 21st century,” said committee member Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Times are changing, and we need to give local governments the flexibility they need.”

The two sides of the debate are passionate about legal notices, those lines of small type in the back pages of newspapers that advertise sheriff’s auctions, school construction bids, and the other everyday business of government.

“Newspapers are being read by fewer and fewer people,” said Pat Jones, a spokesman for the Public Courts Association. “Let local officials make the decisions and save money.”

But newspaper publishers said letting local leaders cut newspapers out of the loop would be a mistake.

Mike Shepard, general manager of the Kitsap Newspaper Group, said a wider audience sees notices in the newspaper than would seek them out on the internet.

“I don’t think the internet has matured to the point of being easily accessible across generational lines and across economic lines,” he said.

Access is a major sticking point for those who support the continuation of printed notices for schools.

According to Diana Kramer, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, “Many communities, especially poorer or rural ones, have low internet penetration. In some [Washington] counties, internet penetration is [only] 15 percent.

“It’s many times more expensive to maintain a computer and monthly internet access than to subscribe to a community newspaper,” she added.

Of course, the state’s newspapers stand to take a hit if the bill is passed. But it’s not about the money, Shepard said. In the six Kitsap County newspapers he runs, Shepard said government legal notices make up less than 5 percent of his newspapers’ total revenue.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, agreed that the issue is the role newspapers play in the community.

“Newspapers are a history of the communities we serve,” Thompson said. “People are losing sight of why these things are required to be published in a journal of record.”

Verification is also an issue of some concern to newspaper publishers.

“Publishing a legal notice in a newspaper produces a record that is available for all time. It can’t be hacked, changed, or deleted from a server,” Kramer said.

But for the senate committee hearing the bill, money is the issue, along with local control.

“We have to really look at what government is doing and make it more cost-effective,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, also a member of the local government committee.

Lake Washington School District currently posts all its legal notices in print newspapers, according to Director of Communications Richard Duval. In the last completed school year (1998-99), the district spent $20,000 on legal notices.

Yet Duval isn’t sure the bill is a good idea. “We have a great relationship with the newspapers in our community, and I don’t want that to change,” he said.

Duval expressed some apprehension about posting notices using a strictly online format: “How do you motivate someone to go to an internet site to find postings of public notices? That’s an open-ended question for which I have yet to hear a good answer.”


Washington Newspaper Publishers Association

Lake Washington School District

Washington State Senate

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