Recently I had the honor and pleasure of being invited to attend the Sept. 13 Hoosier State Press Association Summit to address the preservation of publication of public notices in newspapers.
One may think “How boring is the topic of public notices”? Unless you are in the business, probably pretty boring. But ask yourself how important of a topic is it? As a publisher of our local newspaper, I will tell you very important.
Hoosier State Press Association Board of Directors President Pat Lanman issued a call for publishers to attend this summit in conjunction with the Annual Conference and Advertising Awards Gala.
“For years the newspaper industry has stood as the “Fourth Estate” in our country, but in the past few years, at the local, state, and national levels, newspapers have come under attack as out of touch, out of style, and out of price range,” he wrote.
“With the advent of social media, websites, and other electronic ways to communicate and spread information over the past few years, our industry has withstood several attempts to move public notice information out of our products and onto the Internet. This push seems to be fueled by several issues, including but not limited to: cost of placing the advertising and the erosion of relationships between our industry and our elected officials at all levels.”
“Failure to preserve an independent publication of public notices is not only a blow to government transparency, but a probable death knell for multiple Indiana newspapers,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for HSPA. This discussion was so important that it replaced the originally planned roundtable discussions and idea sharing sessions for publishers in the original program.
In 2019, the General Assembly discussed the subject of eliminating sheriff’s sale (mortgage foreclosures) notices in Indiana newspapers. H.B. 1212 would have eliminated the publication requirements for notices of sheriff’s sales to appear in a printed version. If this bill had passed the notices would no longer have appeared in the newspapers but on the websites of county sheriffs where few Hoosiers would see them. The loss of one notice by legislative action could easily lead to the elimination of all published public notices in a domino effect.
“Most of all, the elimination of public notice is going to devastate the communities we serve and the people who live in them,” Lanman wrote. “People’s property is going to be sold with very little public knowledge; and soon policies and laws will be changed; budgets will be adopted; and agencies abolished and created without public input and out of the public’s view. We simply cannot allow this to happen.”
Fearing that if H.B. 1212 passed could spark a call for all public notices to be eliminated from the press, HSPA stepped in and hit the legislators with information that ultimately stopped the bill from being passed.
Furthermore, in the three-hour discussion that took place at the Summit, there were several stories relating to how devastating the lack of these notices could be.
One publisher shared the story of an elderly couple who had been battling illness. In and out of the hospital and consumed with many decisions other than bill paying at the time, they failed to pay their property tax bill. A friend had seen the sheriff’s sale notice in the paper for the couple’s home and immediately contacted their daughter. She was able to take action to keep the couple’s home from being sold. Without the published notice, the couple’s home would have been sold right from under them.
Another topic was the issue of how bad the broadband situation is in rural Indiana. There are still many households who have unreliable Internet service. If public notices were not published in the newspaper and only online on government websites, a great disservice would be made to those citizens.
As a whole, the amount of local newspaper readership for a public notice is much larger than any government website. We at the Review Republican not only publish it in the newspaper but also on our website. How you choose to read these notices is up to the readers themselves. But you can collectively sit down and read anywhere from one to multiple notices in one setting, in one location as opposed to having to visit numerous government websites to see the latest notices.
As a newspaper, we need to take a better approach at making sure that our readers are aware of what content we include in our newspapers. Whether it is public notices, obituaries, sports or Susie’s grandma turning 100, we need to make sure our readers know the importance of their local newspapers.
A few interesting facts were shared as well at the Summit.
63% of adult Hoosiers say government agencies should be required to publish public notices.
Posting public notices only on government websites would result in a massive 60% decline in readership of notices.
6 out of 10 adults report reading public notices.
71% of adults ages 18-34 use a printed newspaper or visit a newspaper website at least weekly.
More than 3.6 million adult Hoosiers read a printed newspaper or access an online version at least weekly.
These statistics come from American Opinion Research 2017 and show the value of printing public notices in your local community newspapers.
As to the argument that nobody reads the newspaper anymore, think about this, when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired and wanted to thank his fans where did he go to do this? Not to one of the many radio or television stations or even social media in the greater Indianapolis area. He chose a local newspaper. That speaks volumes for the power of newspapers to communicate with their communities.
Greg Perrotto, publisher