Bangor Daily News Tries To Justify Public Notice Law
Notice this: Maine has a law that requires the state to buy advertising space in newspapers. As a result, every year taxpayers are forced to kick in nearly half a million dollars to run public notices on rulemaking proceedings, legislative hearings, and other matters of marginal interest and limited importance.
Few people read them. Fewer still find anything of value in them. That’s because nearly everyone involved in whatever is being advertised is already aware of what’s going on.
This practice amounts to little more than a government subsidy for daily (and a few weekly) newspapers.
There are currently several bills in the Legislature that would change or abolish this wasteful practice. The more sensible ones call for posting the notices online on the state’s Web site, a practice that will save upwards of $400,000 a year.
On March 2, the Bangor Daily News editorial page attempted to head off this reduction in its revenues. “When it comes to legal notices,” the paper proclaimed, “Maine has a system that has worked for decades.”
This is sort of like saying the state doesn’t need airports, rail lines, or highways because rutted dirt roads suitable only for horses have met our transportation needs for decades.
When the requirement to publish public notices was first instituted, most Maine households got a newspaper. Today, daily papers reach far less than half of them and among younger demographics, the percentage that read daily papers is miniscule. Of course, the Internet didn’t exist in the days when the public-notice-in-newspapers law was passed, but now, online services reach in excess of 75 percent of homes, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Putting something on the Web is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to make it widely available.
The Bangor Daily doesn’t see that as an advantage. It considers it a problem, because “it changes the dynamic of government from one of reaching out to citizens to one of making citizens search for information.”
It does? How is Googling more of a burden on the public than sorting through the back pages of a paper in search of a tiny notice?
The paper also quotes a two-year-old op-ed by University of Maine journalism Professor Shannon Martin. “Newspapers are independent of government,” Martin wrote, “so they serve reasonably well as an independent witness to government activities and mandates.”
That might be true, but it’s irrelevant to this discussion. Newspapers don’t control the content of the public notices, so they’re simply publishing whatever the government tells them to – in return for money. How’s that independent?
“Simply put,” the BDN opines, “public notices are an important function of government and publishing them is a service newspapers historically have provided to government efficiently and at reasonable cost.”
As the editorial goes on to mention, there’s no data indicating how efficient the print delivery system is. And there’s no doubt the cost would be more “reasonable” online.
In 2007, when a similar bill was introduced, Jeff Ham of the Maine Press Association argued that moving public notices to the Web “does a lot to take away from open government.”
I doubt that, but even if it’s so, there’s a simple solution, one that the state’s newspaper industry has apparently overlooked:
Publish the notices for free.
Do it just the way papers carry mentions of bean suppers and church fairs. Surely if these community-minded publications can find room to publicize those events, they can spare the space to inform their readers of government actions – without being paid to do so.
Same-sex suit: Larry Grard – the former Morning Sentinel reporter, who was fired in November 2009 – has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against MaineToday Media, the paper’s owner, claiming his civil rights were violated.
Grard, who had worked at the Sentinel for more than seventeen years, was canned after he e-mailed what he thought was an anonymous message to a gay-rights group in Washington, chastising its rhetoric in the wake of the repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law. While he used his own e-mail account, he sent the response on a company computer on company time. The group identified him and complained to his editor. Soon after, he was dismissed.
Grard says his firing was a result of his religious beliefs (he’s Roman Catholic) and had nothing to do with journalism. His suit claims he had complained to his bosses about what he saw as slanted coverage of the marriage issue (Grard did not cover the topic) and “negative comments” about religion that were common in the newsroom.
MaineToday officials had no comment on the suit, but had previously said Grard was fired due to “improper and unacceptable conduct, lack of judgment and associated behavior [that] constituted a serious breach of the legitimate employee and journalistic expectations of company management.”
Vet this: The blog “The Other Side of Town” seems to have caught the Times Record of Brunswick in a fact-checking malfunction.
The conservative site has been complaining about what it says are unverifiable assertions in two letters the paper published. According to the blog, the Times Record (referred to by the blogger as “The Ostrich”) refused to print a letter from the Other Side author calling attention to these alleged misstatements of fact.
After posting the letter on the blog, the author received a brief e-mail from “Jim” at the paper that said, “Your premise that I did not vet the two letters in question is not true.”
The Other Side then contacted the letter writers, both of whom confirmed they hadn’t been contacted by the TR about their claims, nor could they cite a source for them.
So how does the Times Record define “vet”?
Probably has to do with rabies shots and flea dips.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.