Times Record: Newspapers best for legal notices (April 26, 2013)

When discussing his bill to exempt taxes for investing in municipal infrastructure, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky recently made the perfect argument in favor of keeping public notices in newspapers.

He wondered why no one had heard of his proposal, telling WCME news director Jim Bleikamp it had been filed in January and available online ever since.

Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat, unwittingly makes the point we often make to anyone who will listen: The newspaper industry offers a ubiquitous, searchable and reliable place for public notices — one that’s more robust and accessible than any state government website could ever be.

That’s one of the main reasons we support LD 1344 — currently before the State and Local Government Committee, of which Gerzofsky is a member. The committee could hold a work session on the bill as soon as Monday.

The bill requires that “legal notices appearing in a newspaper also appear in any publicly accessible website that the newspaper maintains.”

Starting in July 2014, such websites would have to offer a search function for notices. Maine newspapers are uniquely capable and prepared to establish and maintain such a system.

The proposal ensures public agencies continue to place notices in newspapers — where people have sought this information for more than a century — and heads off initiatives for the state to post notices exclusively online.

To us, letting government print notices about government is the fox guarding the henhouse.

It’s true a growing percentage of Mainers get their news online, but many still rely on printed newspapers, especially in a state where 27 percent of households lack high-speed Internet. To help those who can’t or won’t go online, this bill ensures that public notices stay in print, not be vacuumed into the abyss of cyberspace.

Newspapers have long been responsible for keeping the public informed about government activities via public notices. And Maine citizens have come to expect they will find them in newspapers.

Daily newspaper website traffic in Maine is more than 20 times that of maine.gov — 28 million page views per month versus 1.2 million, according to the Maine Press Association, which backs the bill, and of which The Times Record is a member.

LD 1344 would enhance public notice by requiring that online notices be searchable, and by allowing readers to sign up for free email notifications of new legal notices.

And LD 1344 offers a hybrid print-online approach to public notices, in recognition of the transition that Maine is experiencing toward digital media.

It maintains legal notices in print, and requires that newspaper websites also publish notices in a timely, uniform and reader-friendly way.

Yes, there is a financial motive in play. Newspapers would benefit financially from LD 1344, in that the bill would preserve a revenue stream for an industry that has seen nearly all of them vanish into cyberspace.

Unless government officials would like to see newspapers’ watchdog role further diminish along with their finances — and certainly, there are some who fit that description, especially in the Blaine House — it would make sense, for transparency’s sake, to allow newspapers the responsibility it has carried for centuries to keep the public informed of what its government is doing.

LD 1344 does that, and its cost to the public is greatly outweighed by the preservation of newspapers’ traditional role as an independent check on government.

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