By Richard Karpel
In a recent article in Columbia Journalism Review, Liena Zagare and Ben Smith argue that local governments should move public notice and other civic advertising from newspapers to local-news websites like their own BKLYNER.
To buttress their case, they claim that a newspaper in their borough, the Brooklyn Eagle, recently had “three of its 12 pages entirely covered” by advertising designed to “make sure taxpayers see how their money is being spent, and to prevent officials from hiding corrupt deals.” But those three pages of advertising in the Eagle were placed by law firms, not public officials. And its purpose was to provide official notice of courtroom process, not public spending. That’s a pretty glaring mistake. Surely, CJR would want to correct the record, right?
We thought so too, but CJR disagrees.
However, we’re less interested in CJR’s editorial policy than in what the mistake illustrates about the authors’ understanding of public notice: It is sorely lacking. And people who write about subjects they know little about tend to spread misinformation, which is what Zagare and Smith have done.
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 now so common that 12 states have passed laws requiring it. These measures were passed with the support of the newspaper industry.
Zagare and Smith are not the first to proffer a spurious choice between newspapers and 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 at least 35 million people still read a newspaper every day and local-newspaper digital traffic almost always dwarfs the online traffic of government websites. The willful blindness of some lawmakers on this issue is one of the reasons state press associations have felt the need to pursue legislation requiring their members to run public notices on the web.
Zagare and Smith appeal to public officials to shift 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 21 states that would shift public notice from local newspapers and their digital editions 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 specifically 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 action. Reading a printed newspaper is a serendipitous experience; it encourages readers to view stories and advertisements to which they aren’t initially drawn. Few people pick up a newspaper specifically to read public notice ads but we know from experience that many citizens see them anyway. (Here’s one recent example.) This is vital when the official action they describe is too important to be hidden.
By contrast, online readers are goal directed. They 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.
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.
The authors’ 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.
Another result of the bubble perspective is that people in places like Brooklyn, especially young people who write for internet news sites, tend to think everyone spends all day on the internet. The truth is approximately 50 million people in the U.S. still have no access to the internet. Moreover, they tend to be our must vulnerable citizens – older, lower-income, rural.
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 via digital publishing and still provide the best vehicle for providing the public with official notice.