Legal ad print requirement facing questions
Bills would shift publishing of public notices from newspapers to Web
PHOENIX - In a digital age, should Arizona taxpayers have to continue covering the cost of publishing public notices in newspapers?
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, says it's wasted money when government bodies can easily post the notices on their websites. He's sponsoring a bill to remove a requirement in state law that public notices, also known as legal notices or legal ads, run in newspapers.
"It is extremely costly to do print media," he said. "You're dealing with essentially 19th century technology to disseminate information."
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Sam Crump, R-Anthem, would establish a committee that would spend two years studying the most efficient and effective ways to post public notices. He said the committee would review trends to determine whether newspapers, Web sites or a combination offer the best way to reach the public.
"It's really a matter of the horse and buggy and getting used to the automobile," said Crump, who this week resigned to run for Congress.
Public legal notices are the fine print ads providing information on the actions of federal, state and local governments as well as corporations. Among many other things, they give notice of city hearings, proposals for new buildings and new laws such as a sales tax increase.
By law, public notices must run in a general circulation newspaper printed in English for a period four days if published in a daily newspaper or once each week for two consecutive weeks in a weekly newspaper.
The two bills on the future public notices come as local governments deal with strained budgets and as newspapers face eroding advertising revenue and competition from the Web.
Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said there was a time when publishing public notices in newspapers was necessary, but not anymore.
"It's a subsidy newspapers are looking for, and its usefulness is long past," he said.
Paula Casey, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association, said newspapers act as neutral parties to verify that notices are posted in a complete and timely manner. Government Web sites are difficult to navigate, she said, while newspapers have simple layouts that consolidate all notices in one place.
"The notices would be fragmented in a hundred different websites," she said.
Casey estimated that newspapers receive 3 to 5 percent of their revenue from public notices.
Newspapers have already begun to publish public notices online through the newspaper association's site, which automatically uploads more than 55,000 notices a month, Casey said. That combination of print placement and online access is more cost-efficient than government bodies offering the access themselves, she said.
Teri Hayt, president of the Arizona Newspapers Association and managing editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, said readers look at these public ads as they would any other article or advertisement.
"It's content," she said.
Todd Madekzsa, director of legislative affairs for the County Supervisors Association of Arizona, said posting public notices online would save counties money at a time when they dearly need it.
"If we can save $8,000 in six different areas, we can keep a sheriff's deputy on the streets," he said.
Biggs said HB 2244, which has yet to be scheduled for committee action, would make public notices more accessible while reducing costs.
Posting online would make notices available to a wider audience and would increase government transparency, he said. Typing in a key phrase and pulling up a notice would be easier than searching through fine print, Biggs said.
"Use the 21st century technology we have," he said. "It's cheaper, more efficient, more transparent and more available."
Crump's bill, HB 2302, which was held without consideration recently by the House Government Committee, would create a committee that would examine among other things, the age of the population, the availability of Internet access in rural versus urban areas and the costs of upgrading government technology for archiving the notices.
Crump said that the goal of the committee is finding the best way to disseminate essential information while protecting the taxpayers' interests.
"The public needs to know what we are doing," he said.