Imagine mistaking an aardvark for an elephant and writing an opinion piece about the policy implications of elephant behavior based on what you saw.
That’s a fair analogy for what Liena Zagare and Ben Smith did in “Your tax dollars at work,” in which they argue that local governments should move public notice and other civic advertising from newspapers to local-news websites like their own BKLYNER. I’ll get back to the analogy at the end of this piece. For now let me address the misinformation that Zagare and Smith spread in making an argument on a subject they obviously know little about.
They assert that city governments face a stark choice: Either continue running public notice and other civic advertising in “fading print publications or, seek to reach a vibrant online audience in the new online media.” Actually, local governments have a third option: They can run their advertising in both a local newspaper and on the newspaper’s website. This happens to be the option that most local governments presently exercise. Why? Because the great majority of newspapers eligible to publish public notice advertising now also run the notices online at no additional cost. In fact, this practice is so widespread that 12 states have passed laws requiring it. These measures were passed with the support of the newspaper industry, demonstrating the seriousness with which the industry takes its responsibility to continue to provide official notice to the widest possible audience in an age of falling print circulation.
Zagare and Smith are not the first to proffer a spurious choice between public notice advertising in newspapers or on the internet. Legislators who introduce bills to move public notice from newspapers to government websites frame their proposals in the same false light. They do so despite the fact that tens of millions of people still read a newspaper every day and local-newspaper website traffic almost always dwarfs the online traffic of government websites in the same area. The willful blindness of some lawmakers on this issue is one of the reasons the newspaper industry has felt the need to pursue legislation requiring its constituents to run public notices on the web.
Zagare and Smith appeal to public officials to shift their advertising from “zombie” community newspapers to “vibrant” local-news websites. Leave aside for the moment the monumental self-regard that leads them to suggest that only their “heroic” websites are capable of holding local officials accountable. Their appeal is both naive and misguided.
Legislation has been introduced this year in more than 20 states that would shift public notice from local newspapers and their websites to government websites. In most cases, the bills are backed by public officials like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who have little interest in providing public notice; their real goal is to hurt the newspapers that cover them. The notion that these same officials will see the light and support critical journalism that holds them accountable is a pipe dream.
Moreover, it is not the role of government to pick winners and losers in the media. If politicians had the power to direct the placement of public notice advertising, there’s little doubt that many would use it to reward favorable reporting while punishing less-flattering coverage.
Zagare and Smith also neglect to address fundamental differences between the print and online experiences and how they impact the ability to provide citizens with effective notice of official actions. Reading a printed newspaper is a serendipitous experience; it encourages us to view stories and advertisements to which we may not have initially been drawn. Few people pick up a newspaper specifically to read public notice ads but we know from experience that many citizens see them anyway, which is vital when the official action they describe is too important to be hidden.
By contrast, online readers are goal directed. We generally visit websites seeking specific information. Serendipity can be encouraged but it is more challenging to direct readers’ attention to particular content in an online environment than it is in print. It is especially difficult in the case of public notice ads because readers have been trained for over a hundred years to look for them in the newspaper. That’s why providing access to email notification of public notice is vital in the online environment.
Print is also still far superior to the internet at providing assurance that a particular notice was published and conformed with the law. Digital information can easily be intentionally or accidentally altered or erased after it is posted, which simply isn’t possible in print. That’s why a newspaper notice can be self-authenticated as evidence in a court of law, and a website notice cannot.
Now about that analogy …
It’s clear that Zagare and Smith are upset by their situation in Brooklyn. They believe they provide a better product and a larger audience than their competitors and therefore deserve more of the borough’s advertising. “But if you picked (up the Brooklyn Eagle) at the courthouse a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen three of its 12 pages entirely covered by government-mandated small print advertising,” they write.
Problem is, those three pages of advertising were placed by law firms, not government officials. The authors appear to be unaware that there are two kinds of public notice advertising mandated by law — government notice and private-party notice of court process — and that the Eagle runs only the second kind. In other words, the Eagle is an aardvark not an elephant. So Zagare and Smith prescribed public policy solutions for the entire country seemingly based on a misunderstanding about the source of their competitor’s advertising
Their slanderous characterization of community newspapers as essentially worthless is a classically hipper-than-thou, Brooklyn-bubble perspective and merits little response. I’ll simply state the obvious: There are many excellent newspapers that are essential to their communities, and there are others that fall short of those standards. I suspect the same is true of local-news websites.
Publishing a newspaper in 2017 is much more challenging than it was in the past. Print circulation is down and profits are more difficult to come by. Nevertheless, most newspapers have expanded their audience — including the local audience that public notice advertising is intended to reach — and still provide the best vehicle for providing the public with official notice.
Richard Karpel is the president of APW Management and the executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that provides education and research about public notice in newspapers and on their websites.