Public Notice Week set for January 22-28
Tennessee Press Association has set Public Notice Week for January 22-28, 2017. We encourage you to produce your own editorials during the designated week and throughout the year. Items from the previous year's kit are also available at the bottom of this page.
Also, ads are available for all U.S. newspapers from the News Media Alliance. Visit their site to download the ads.
Virtues of public notices in “newspapers” greater than often-touted alternative
Gibson County residents first saw in the Nov. 22, 2016 editions of the Milan Mirror-Exchange that a local nursing home was in serious trouble with federal authorities for alleged maltreatment of patients.
It was in a legally-required public notice that informed friends and family of patients’ days before Thanksgiving that Medicare and Medicaid payments would end soon. It appeared in print, on the paper’s online edition and a statewide website.
The notice was an act by government to prevent public harm. It was an official news tip that led the Mirror to report: “Feds come down hard on Milan Health Care.”
The notice was the type of accountability that harkens back to the first Congress in 1789 which ordered that reports of all of its official acts be placed in three independent newspapers. It reflected the public distrust of the new government
The safety notice in Milan was in stark contrast to earlier actions across the state in Wartburg.
Voters learned in the Morgan County News that county commissioners ignored a state law when they elected a new member. The law requires ”public notice to be given in a newspaper of general circulation in the county at least seven (7) days prior” to a meeting to fill a vacancy because before any action registered voters are entitled to “an opportunity to submit names to the county legislative body for consideration.”
These examples are germane to recurring attempts to change how the public gets notice of official actions or plans. Proposals include moving notices from newspapers to government websites or giving local politicians discretion. Morgan County’s discretion not to give notice of its meeting shows why moving notices could be a bad idea.
Proponents cite reports of dwindling print readership and generalized assertions that the public now gets all of its information from on the Internet. Some claim it’s a good way to save money, but there often are other agendas.
“It isn’t unusual for politicians seeking revenge for negative press coverage to retaliate by sponsoring legislation that would eliminate public notice advertising in newspapers,” the Public Notice Resource Center in Washington reported. It was a reference to Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign against newspapers in the New Jersey legislature. The one-time presidential candidate blames news coverage of the “bridgegate” scandal for his 18% approval rating.
Tennessee has seen examples of those types of “revenge” attacks from critics who conveniently ignore the virtues of publishing notices in newspapers.
Noting that “…the purpose of publication…is to ensure the widest possible dissemination and publicity,” a bill last year said government entities “may elect” to publish notices on a publicly available web site in lieu of other publication methods.”
A bill expected this year seeks to change the law on soliciting competitive bids and allow use “an alternative method of announcement that generates the widest circulation.”
There is never proof that government websites could do that.
The “widest circulation” and dwindling readership issues were addressed three years ago when newspapers were required to post all printed notices on the paper’s local website and on a statewide aggregate website: tnpublicnotice.com.
To make notices more visible, newspapers provide a link to the notices from the front page of their website. Notices must be available to the public without charge.
That law provided more and better access than ever at no additional charge.
Readership studies show that adults who migrate from the printed newspaper usually go no further than the newspaper’s website. The national News Media Alliance reports surveys showing that two out of three U.S. adults read a newspaper in print or online during the week. Research in Tennessee showed comparable numbers.
The public would miss valuable protections with notices on government websites. Virtues in the system now include:
Notices are delivered by an independent and historically reliable source where the public expects to find them. They usually appear in the same place in the printed version of the local newspaper. Whereas they are highly visible on newspaper websites, they could get buried in an array of government websites.
A newspaper cannot be hacked which makes the notice secure and thus more reliable. The Anderson County website was hacked in 2016 and five months later officials did not know what happened.
A printed record of a public notice is an important document in any governmental or legal proceedings which is why notice is easily verifiable in the hands of a newspaper.
It is a service provided by good corporate citizens and local employers with more than a casual interest in keeping the public informed about government and topics of broader, general interest.
When governments create new programs they typically require some measure of independent public disclosure for oversight and accountability.
As for saving taxpayer money, the cost of publishing notices all year is seldom more than a fraction of 1 percent of an entity’s annual budget.
Creating an “option” or putting notices exclusively on government websites hands politicians a club to use against critical news coverage.
Frank Gibson is TPA’s public policy director and founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @615-202-2685.
Frank Gibson's head shot
Virtues of public keeping notices in newspapers
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines virtue as a “beneficial quality or power of a thing.” That makes the word ideally suited for use in discussing the values of retaining public notices in newspapers and on newspaper websites.
Chapter 124 of the Public Acts of 2013 as approved by the state legislature provided that:
• To ensure more and better access to public and legal notices every notice published in a newspaper also must appear on the newspapers local website and be available on the statewide aggregate public notice website provided as a public service by the state press association.
• To make notices more visible and easier to find, newspapers must provide a link to the notices from the front page of their website and a link from the local public notice page to the statewide website.
• To ensure no higher cost to the entity giving public notice, the law provides newspapers “shall” include those extra functions in the “same price” for printing the notice.
• The law says “Any notice published on a web site…shall be accessible to the public at no charge.” That means public notice ads cannot be placed behind a newspaper pay wall, if the publication charges for other website content.
• Printed notices usually appear in the same place where the public is accustomed to looking.
• The legal definition of a “newspaper of general circulation" in the state Election Code contains several criteria, including these: “published continuously during the immediately preceding one-year period, which is published for the dissemination of news of general interest to the community which it serves, and is circulated generally in the municipality in which it is published and in which notice is to be given.”
Material from previous years:
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director
TPA’s annual Public Notice Week has been set for Jan. 17-23 as a way to educate the public and political leaders on the true value of notices. Education should be ongoing, and it’s an important part of our Reception on Jan. 27 during the Winter Convention.
To continue garnering public support for keeping notices in newspapers, TPA members need to call attention to the public notices in their newspapers and their significance to the paper’s watchdog role. Newspapers need to incorporate public notices in generating news stories that week and credit the source. I used them as a “tip sheet” for years.
Readers and members of the legislature need to be reminded of the investment TPA made two years ago, when it supported changes to make public notices more visible and more widely circulated in our local communities. Now, T.C.A. 1-3-120 requires every publication that carries public notice advertising to post them on the newspaper’s websites and on www.tnpublicnotice.com -- TPA’s statewide aggregate website. That is at no added cost to the entity running the notice.
During Public Notice Week, TPA members need to remind readers of the role of public notices that routinely appear in their newspaper and how those notices are the critical leg of the public transparency puzzle alongside open records and meetings.
The second and probably most important piece of the education process is conveying our message to representatives in the General Assembly. TPA members don’t have to wait until Public Notice Week to do that.
Lawmakers need to be reminded that the publishing of public notices is a service provided by an independent, private and trustworthy enterprise. It is a service provided by good corporate citizens and local employers who have more than a casual interest in keeping the public informed about their government.
They need to know that our latest research showed that 45 percent of Tennessee households buy newspapers from our members. Despite what critics say, that is further proof that newspapers are alive and as relevant as ever in their communities.
Various studies – national and others – show that readers who migrate from the printed newspaper product usually go no farther than the local newspaper’s website where readership continues to grow.
The Public Notice Resource Center and state press associations across the country have long argued that citizens turn to their local newspaper first and foremost for news and information, not a government website. This from the PNRC under the headline “League of Minnesota Cities Poll: People Turn to Newspapers for Notices”:
A May poll conducted by the League of Minnesota Cities supports this argument. A poll posted on the League’s website asked, “From what source do residents of your community get most of their news about city government?” A hefty 79 percent said the local newspaper, while just 6 percent said the city website. This news was reported by both the Minnesota Newspaper Association and the South Dakota Newspaper Association.
The poll appeared briefly on the League’s website before it was removed.
Frank Gibson is TPA’s public policy director and was founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He is co-author of “Keys to Open Government,” available from TPA and TCOG. Contact him at email@example.com or 615-202-2685.
Independent public notices key to government transparency
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director mug shot
Editor’s note: it’s Public Notice Week Jan. 18-24—time to remind citizens of the value of Public Notices in representative democratic government.
When governments create or authorize state and local agencies to create new programs, they typically require some measure of public disclosure as a form of public oversight and to make agencies accountable.
As far back as 1789, during the first American Congress, that accountability has come in the form of public notices in independently-published newspapers. Actions of the congress were ordered to be published in three separate newspapers to ensure wide circulation.
The concept eventually extended to commerce as a way to protect property interest, provide due process and consumer protection from certain business entities – foreclosures, bankruptcies or unclaimed property, to name a few.
City councils, county commissions, school boards and other public bodies are required to provide special notices of special meetings, for example, because those notices must list all items to be discussed. Public notices are required for public hearings on land zoning changes, proposed budgets and taxes, certain ordinances, annexations, and when the government plans to use its ultimate police power – the use of eminent domain to take private property.
Public notices are like the third leg of a stool – with the open records and open meetings laws.
Proposals have been made in Tennessee and other states to move those disclosure notices solely to government websites. That would be tantamount to eliminating public notices as they have historically been.
As one commentator in Georgia noted on a similar county commissioners’ association proposal: “That would take notices out of plain sight and bury them in the tangle of documents on government-designated websites.”
Anyone looking for a public notice would have to know exactly what they are searching for and when and where to look. Instead of going to their local newspaper where they have always gone to see notices, citizens would be left searching for “a needle in a haystack.”
Public notices need to be made available as widely as possible. Tennessee newspapers and the General Assembly smartly went in that direction last year.
Since April 1, Tennessee newspapers post every notice printed in the local paper on their local website and on a statewide, aggregate website provided by the Tennessee Press Association. Those extra services are included at no extra cost to the entity placing the notices.
To ensure the notices are easily found, newspapers must link to the notices section from the website homepage. From there they link to the statewide website at www.tnpublicnotices.com. The site is searchable.
The only way to make distribution any wider would require stuffing notices in every mailbox.
Two primary arguments for changing to websites exclusively -- saving government money and reports of declining readership of print newspapers – don’t really hold water.
The touted savings never include the costs of maintaining a dependable and secure government website, one that can’t be hacked and where there are no guarantees.
Newspaper critics argue there is “a march toward online news with its immediacy and away from print news.”
The latest available figures showed that 45% of Tennessee households subscribe to newspapers. That’s a base. When newspaper website traffic is added, it is easy to see that many readers migrating from print are migrating to newspaper-run websites. Now they will find notices in both places, plus 1.
The Aspen Times, a newspaper in Colorado, compared its website to the site for the combined local city and county governments. The newspaper site had 4.7 times more monthly users and 8.5 times more monthly page views because readers, taxpayers and voters were coming to the Times and its website for other reasons and interests.
No one has said it better than the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times:
“Newspapers have a long and important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on officeholders and agencies through our news reporting and publication of government notices.”
Frank Gibson is public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public Notice Week: Something to celebrate
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director mug shot
Residents of Mt. Judea, Ark., woke up one morning recently to learn that their small community is about to become host to a hog farm – population 6,503 hogs.
“What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it,” Gordon Watkins, a nearby farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, told the Arkansas Times in Little Rock.
State and local government officials had already approved the facility and said the public notice of the permit review process was “legally sufficient.” However, the instant replay showed the only notice the state gave was on the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The only recourse left for Mt. Judeans is a lawsuit.
Stories like this abound all over the country, including in the Volunteer State. Despite that, numerous bills have been filed in the state legislature here in recent years to allow city councils and school boards among others to stop placing notices in newspapers and instead put them on their own websites.
Stories like this also prompted newspapers nationwide to create Public Notice Week to bring attention to public notices and how important they are to our democracy. It’s been that way since 1789. Open meetings and records laws as well as public notices allow citizens to know about and participate in their government.
Usually there is little to celebrate because bills to move or eliminate notices are always around. Some may surface yet in 2014, but this year is different. There is something worth celebrating.
Starting April 1, Tennessee newspapers which print public notices also will post them on the newspaper’s local website and upload them to a statewide aggregate website, www.tnpublicnotice.com, operated by the Tennessee Press Association. A majority of TPA’s 121 member newspapers has been doing both for some time.
TPA made a commitment and proposed legislation last year to formalize it. It requires newspapers to do the double posting – triple if you consider print – at no additional charge and provides that newspapers make notices easier to find with special links on their website homepages.
TPA executive director Greg Sherrill said the new law “ensures the best of both worlds.”
“Our leadership realized that an increasing number of our readers choose to receive their news and information from newspaper websites, which are consistently among the most-trafficked sites within any given community,” Sherrill said. “By making sure that notices are also available on these sites, newspapers can make public notices accessible to the widest audience possible. While online notices are convenient for many readers, they lack the security, durability, and ability for archival that the printed notices provide.”
Proposed changes here and elsewhere usually center on arguments that ending the practice of advertising notices will save the government money, but random checks show those expenses rarely exceed one-tenth of 1 percent of the agency’s budget.
Open government advocates question whether moving notices exclusively to government websites, in effect, eliminates public notice because it certainly removes the independent quality.
Government officials everywhere argue that the issue is about newspaper revenue. Newspapers acknowledge the revenue argument, but government officials don’t acknowledge how few people visit their websites. One survey last year showed almost 150 city and county governments didn’t have websites.
Proposals have contained no real standards for government websites. Bills here and in Pennsylvania provided they had to be available only 90 percent of the time. Citizens without computer access could get hard copies of notices at City Hall. Proponents didn’t explain how citizens would know when and where to ask.
Public opinion surveys in other states show that super majorities of taxpayers believe that the independent publication of public notices is worth the expense.
Webster’s defines the word “optimum” as “the point at which the condition, degree or amount of something is the most favorable or advantageous.” The new law and the services it requires newspapers to provide are about as favorable and advantageous as you can get short of a direct notice to every resident.
Opponents of the change, admittedly some newspaper editorial writers, argue that notices should stay in the newspaper where the public already knows where to find them, and some previous proposals here and elsewhere have addressed that issue.
The solution: place an advertisement in the newspaper telling citizens about the government website.
What a novel idea.
Frank Gibson is TPA’s public policy director. He can be reached at 615-202-2685 or at email@example.com.
2013 Material: Editorials Cartoons Ads Download kit as .zip file
Editorials/Columns: Talking points for developing op-ed pieces talking points
By Frank Gibson, TPA Public Policy Director link to text mug shot
With efforts expected in the legislature again this year to move public notices from newspapers to government-controlled websites, Tennesseans should be concerned about the implications of that change for them and their right to know.
There are obvious reasons why these notices need to be distributed as broadly as possible and delivered by the most independent and reliable source available. Statewide and sometimes obscure local government websites don’t fit the bill.
By Jack McElroy, Knoxville News Sentinel link to text mug shot
In recent years, the General Assembly has considered amending the way public notices are handled in Tennessee. This is understandable. The communications world is changing, and newspapers, where many public notices historically have been published, are in transition.
But the assumption that government could save money and still adequately notify the public by simply posting notices on government websites is flawed.
By Ted Rayburn, Editorial Page Editor, The Tennessean link to text
With the legislature dramatically reducing the number of bills members can file this year, it will be easier than usual to make a list of the bad bills of recent years that should not be resurrected during the 108th General Assembly.
Making the wearing of motorcycle helmets optional would be on that list. So should bills that propose to change or eliminate public notices.
By Henry Stokes, retired associate publisher of The Commercial Appeal link to text mug shot
The essence of your freedom is that in America, very little government happens by decree. Most every action is open to democratic debate.
Question is: Will that debate occur before or after a decision is made?
On big issues – like, who will be mayor or governor – you have the right as a citizen to vote before an election or issue is decided.
On many other issues, you can’t influence a decision unless you find out about it before hand.
That’s where public notices protect your rights.
By Bill Williams, The Paris Post-Intelligencer Link to text mug shot
Democracy is not for everybody. We’ve learned that in the Middle East, where societies with ancient tribal roots are shown to be unprepared for a government system in which the majority rules by public vote.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people can work only if the people are informed. An electorate that does not know or understand what government is all about is an invitation to despotism.
By Jim Zachary, Tennessee Transparency Project link to text mug shot
Any battle to remove required government public notices from newspapers is an assault on government transparency.
Compromising government transparency is a full-out assault on the citizens of Tennessee.
Government belongs to the governed, not the governing.
Link for Charlie Daniel cartoon for 2013
Special thanks to Charlie Daniel, Knoxville News Sentinel, for providing a cartoon again this year!
Links to Clay Bennett cartoon color BW
Special thanks to Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press, for providing a cartoon again this year!
Special thanks to Karen Geary, The Paris Post-Intelligencer for desiging these ads!
Download color or B/W Download color or B/W Download color or B/W
Download color or B/W Download color or B/W
Remember the Good Ol' Days... Color Public Notice is hereby given... Color Black&White
Cartoon courtesy of Charlie Daniel, News Sentinel, Knoxville Cartoon courtesy of Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
From the 2011 Kit Color
Black/White From the 2011 Kit Notice the Difference cartoons Color Black/White
Cartoons are courtesy of Charlie Daniel, News Sentinel, Knoxville
From the 2011 Kit Link to Public Notice by Government Color
Cartoon is courtesy of Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
link to ads This series of Public Notice Ads reinforces the importance of printed notice
The following public notice ads were adapted by Chattanooga Times Free Press from concept ads created by Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association, and are available for all TPA members to use. All ads are half page ads.
link to "Hadn't you heard?"
Link to Get Involved ad series Link to Bad Idea ad Link to Fox Hen House ad Link to America Noticed! ads