Virginia cities lose bid to post notices online
Local governments in several states have been pushing for state legislation that would allow them to post their legal notices, such as public hearings, public auctions and contract bids, on their own websites instead of in newspapers. However, the newspaper industry is fighting the laws, and in some cases, the industry’s arguments have succeeded in killing the legislation.
At least 40 states have introduced bills that would allow the change from newspapers to the Internet, according to a January 2010 research report from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy. While courts traditionally have required cities to place their legal notices in local newspapers of general circulation to guarantee a well-informed citizenry, newspaper readership has declined, and more people are using the Internet to find information, says Jerri Wilson, legislative and management analyst for Newport News, Va. A study from the Washington-based Pew Research Center shows marked declines in print newspaper readership, says Wilson. “The argument can be made that allowing local governments to use media outlets on the Internet helps us to reach the largest number of citizens,” she says.
Newspapers counter that there are distinct benefits to keeping public notices in the local paper. “Newspapers remain a third-party reporter to the public, and they provide an environment for notice that the public has come to trust as objective and neutral,” says Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Glen Allen, Va.-based Virginia Press Association (VPA). Also, she says that, once printed in newspapers, public notices cannot be altered, unlike information posted online. And, website notifications would disenfranchise elderly, poor and rural residents who either do not use the Internet or do not have access to it, she says.
Bills to allow local governments to meet the public notification requirement through venues other than newspaper announcements were introduced during the 2009 and 2010 sessions of the Virginia General Assembly. However, all of the bills failed.
VPA lobbied against the legislation and helped kill the bills by providing “piles of good research” on the greater reach of newspapers and newspaper websites over viewership on government websites, Stanley says. Wilson says there is still growing support in Virginia for allowing the change to online notices. “So far, that support has been insufficient to propel any of these measures to success,” Wilson says.