An array of bills before the Rhode Island General Assembly would chip away at both newspapers and transparency in government. They seek to alter numerous state laws that require governments, both …
An array of bills before the Rhode Island General Assembly would chip away at both newspapers and transparency in government. They seek to alter numerous state laws that require governments, both large and small, to publish notices of certain activities in printed newspapers.
The assault on legal notices is likely to become an annual occurrence at the Statehouse, as a few advocates have adopted the familiar refrain of: “Why pay for print, when you can post it free online?”
The newspaper industry is painfully familiar with this logic. It’s been used repeatedly to hammer the business model and either diminish or shut down print publishers everywhere. Yet despite ugly perceptions, Rhode Island newspapers are alive and doing quite well. Collectively, they are mailed, dropped or brought home to more than 260,000 households. Considering that each household averages more than one adult reader, that’s exceptional reach in a state of a million people.
This legislation also dims the light on government and its activities. These legal notices run the gamut, bringing the public critical information about zoning board agendas, town budgets, changes to tax rates, bids for government projects, vacancies on powerful boards, sales of tax-delinquent properties, public hearings, liquor license applications, zoning amendments and so much more.
Despite the appeal of dumping all this information into online depositories, there is a world of difference between posting a notice where someone might find it, and actually delivering it to their home. That’s what newspapers do. They take critical information about a community, and they bring it home to some of its most invested and engaged citizens.
Nearly every community in this state is still served by a “paper of record,” which despite all the setbacks to the industry, remains a trusted source of unbiased coverage and insights. These papers are consistent, visible, reliable and recognized by readers as THE source for this vital information.
If legal notices migrate to the internet, they will move further away from those with unreliable internet connections or the elderly who aren’t comfortable navigating it. This would also change the burden on governments forever. Instead of making an effort to actually deliver these notices to the public, governments would start filing them in a virtual cabinet, relying on citizens to come find them. Even if web-based legal notices are easy to find, they are less likely to be found by a digital public that is hyper-distracted by apps, social media and targeted ads.
Ink and paper have a permanence and utility that online databases never will. Making something “public” on the internet and seeing it published in print are not the same thing, and never will be.