Perhaps local newspapers and local governments should come to an agreement in which each party says to the other: We reserve the right to take issue with how you do your job, but we’ll stop short of actually trying to do your job.
This proposition comes to mind because of efforts across the country, in New Mexico, Texas and most recently in North Carolina, for lawmakers to redefine the requirements for publication of legal advertising.
We’re talking about foreclosure notices, court summonses, announcements of public hearings, etc., that you see daily in the classified ads.
Lawmakers are trying to figure out ways to have this information placed somewhere besides a newspaper — usually online with government agencies or with private vendors who would contract with government for the rights.
If the problem with this idea doesn’t become immediately apparent, just consider how the North Carolina Press Association voiced its opposition:
“The NCPA believes public notices must be placed where the public notices.”
In other words, local newspapers reach far more members of the community than the kind of platform lawmakers intend.
Without getting bogged down in legalese, we can assume the authors of current laws had the breadth of that reach in mind when they mentioned newspapers specifically.
Lawmakers — including several of them still kicking this idea around in New Mexico and Texas — might like to see government save a little money on advertising. But it would come at the expense of getting the information out to as many people as practically possible — which would seem to be the whole point of public notices.
In case you didn’t notice, the issue of money raised its ambivalent head in the previous paragraph. Yes, newspapers do see profit from advertising these legal notices.
The fact is, though, current laws requiring legal notices be placed in newspapers mention advertising specifically. You might say it goes back to the idea of keeping some lines drawn between government and media. Newspapers don’t function as an arm of public agencies, and vice versa. They do, however, have areas of common interest.
In this case, putting legal notices in the newspaper (a) allows government to fulfill its statutory obligations; (b) allows the newspaper to fulfill its obligation to the audience to share relevant information; and (c) makes the information widely available to the public. This arrangement would appear to serve all parties pretty well.
Besides, when it comes to legal ads, the current online landscape isn't barren. Many newspapers already include legals in their online editions. In fact, the electronic replica editions of Freedom New Mexico's three print newspapers (in Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari) include them. And soon we'll join other state newspapers working with the New Mexico Press Association to include them in a central online legals Website that the public can access freely.
For all these reasons, the system we have now for advertising legal notices is not broken, so let’s not fix it.
Newspapers have no reason to get into the regulation business, and government has no reason to get into the mass media business.