By Rick Thomason
Tennessee Press Association
This country, as well as the State of Tennessee, enjoy a long history of open government.
Our Founding Fathers insisted that laws, resolutions and other such actions by the U.S. Congress be published in newspapers as public notices.
When Tennessee became a state, its first constitution also appropriately included such provisions.
More than 230 years ago legislators recognized the importance of citizens knowing how their new government was working for them.
Our governments – at all levels – continue to evolve, and it is as important in 2022 as it was in 1789 that citizens remain notified of the critical maneuverings of those elected to make decisions on their behalf.
Our republic has always been grounded in the principles of democracy where citizens have the opportunity – and dare I say, obligation? – to keep an eye on government functions that impact them every day. And there has been no greater nor more important avenue for that scrutiny than public notices published in this nation’s newspapers, which provide a searchable history of notices.
But not every legislator sees the good in published public notices. In fact, over the last couple of decades some lawmakers have fought to take public notices from newspapers and move them to government-run websites. The reasons are suspect at best and the arguments are fraught with holes.
Some lawmakers argue that public notices placed only online will broaden the reach of public notices. On the surface it sounds like those individuals are looking out for the best interest of their constituents, right? Not so fast. The truth is that millions who now can see public notices in newspapers will no longer see them because they do not have, nor do they want, internet access. This is particularly true among the elderly who are largely avid newspaper readers and those who live in rural areas.
Plus, in 2013 it was made law in Tennessee that newspapers develop a statewide site to which all published public notices would be uploaded. The Tennessee Press Association created that website that is available to all citizens. So not only do newspapers in Tennessee already publish public notices in print and on their own websites, but those public notices are also posted on a statewide site, too. And again, that is by law.
Imagine if every town, city and county had to put that technology and the manpower behind it in place.
Lawmakers will point to ‘cost savings’ if all public notices are moved online to government-run websites. Again, it sounds good in theory, but the reality is that state and local governments aren’t equipped to properly post and distribute public notices online.
Building websites with the appropriate capabilities isn’t easy nor is it inexpensive. Maintaining them is even more expensive and, frankly, in this day and age few towns, cities and counties have the financial wherewithal to add more layers of needless work.
Under the guise of ‘broader distribution of public notices’ (when they actually want them less visible), some lawmakers will say that newspapers are no longer an effective way to distribute these important messages. Again, nice try. But again, it is an argument full of holes and misinformation.
While newspaper print distribution has shown a decline over the last couple of decades, mostly in urban areas, newspaper audiences are larger than they have ever been because of digital access. Exactly where these lawmakers say they want public notices – online. But the difference is that the online audience for newspapers is not only consistent, but it’s growing and growing consistently.
And guess where newspapers place their public notices? Yep. Online. A 2013 law mandated that we do that at no extra charge.
But wait! There’s more! (No, this isn’t an informercial.) The Tennessee Press Association already collects and aggregates public notices on one public website that was just recently updated to make it easier than ever to use. So, in this state our public notices get twice the online exposure already.
Let’s not make the public go on a hunting expedition for public notices. Newspapers already publish and distribute them even more effectively than our Founding Fathers could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
This is Public Notice Week in Tennessee. Public notices are an equal third of the triangle that make up the ideological foundation of our collaborative government. The other thirds are open meetings and access to public records. Support us in our efforts to keep public notices visible and cost effective. The old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ certainly applies here.