Cost-saving measure could lead to less government transparency
A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly that would allow local governments to stop publishing mandated legal notices in newspapers may save cash-strapped local governments a small amount of money in advertising expenses each year, but could also lead to citizens missing out on critical information while also damaging local newsrooms.
“I do feel that many legislators feel this is a way to punish newspapers,” said Tammy McQueen Dunn, Editor of the Montgomery Herald. “Newspapers are watchdogs for the community. That is how the founding fathers intended it to be. We are the eyes and ears of the public and it is our duty to keep the public informed, especially in areas such as Montgomery County where we are the only source of news. Newspapers also have an obligation to be fair and accurate in their reporting.”
In North Carolina, as in many states, there are all manner of public notices that must by law be published by local governments in local newspapers — delinquent property taxes or zoning hearings, for example.
If passed, House Bill 35 would allow some local governments to publish those notices on county-owned websites instead.
The way it would work is that a governing board would need to adopt an ordinance permitting the online advertisements in addition to or in lieu of traditional print advertisements. Once that ordinance is passed, all boards appointed by that governing board would also be free to publish their notices in a similar way.
It’s not the first time such a bill has been considered by the General Assembly. In 2017, a similar measure applying to just two counties, Guilford and Wake, passed the General Assembly.
Not surprisingly, the state’s largest trade association representing news publishers, the North Carolina Press Association, has stood in opposition to such bills.
A notice in the NCPA’s latest newsletter, dated Jan. 29, says that publishers in affected counties have asked to be removed from the current iteration of the bill. The notice also says that the NCPA will track the bill through its committees, meet with committee members and continue communicating with House leaders, allies and members of the Press Association.
The amount of attention focused on the bill by the NCPA speaks to the multi-faceted problems it could cause for newspapers that are often the only source of local news in rural areas.
“We provide the type of coverage that most community newspapers provide, news, all town, county and school board meetings, community events, sports, schools, features, et cetera,” said McQueen-Dunn of her Montgomery Herald. “Additionally, we do some investigative reporting. In general, if it is related to Montgomery County, we will cover it, though it is harder and harder with such a small staff, which is four full-time and two part-time.”
McQueen-Dunn said that if the bill does pass, her 134-year-old newspaper that serves about 5,000 readers could be in line for a revenue cut of around $25,000 a year.
“That is a significant hit for a business such as ours and not one that could be made up in other areas,” she said. “Any amount at this point jeopardizes the future of Montgomery Herald’s sustainability. We have some businesses that are very supportive of the newspaper and realize the importance of having one in a community but overall, especially with young people and the lack of educational civics, they do not realize what is at stake. We simply cannot take any more hits and continue to survive. I worry about the future of news delivery for our community and the many others like us.”
Forcing readers to navigate a county-owned website to search for public notices would present other challenges; racial, economic and geographic disparities in rural internet access continue to be an issue that’s been in the spotlight during the Coronavirus Pandemic.
“We are rural and it is often not feasible for companies to run cable in certain areas, which is understandable,” said McQueen-Dunn. “Much of Montgomery County is a poor community and affordability is an issue as well. With the CARES funding, the county purchased over 1,000 hot spots for students to use due to no internet at home. This translated to 706 households with students that required at least one and sometimes two hot spots just for students to attend virtual school. Additionally, it should be noted that even with that, there were some areas that still could not receive internet service.”
Montgomery County may lie east of Charlotte, but it appears to have many issues in common with small counties in Western North Carolina. Jim Buchanan, editor of the Sylva Herald, mentioned the same problems with internet access, as well as with the realities of keeping citizens informed as a small-town newspaper.
“It certainly wouldn’t close the doors,” Buchanan said of a revenue hit that would be above $13,000, “but we are a tourism economy and tourism has taken it on the chin. Restaurants, not happening. Big events, not happening, Western Carolina Football, not happening. Every penny counts. It certainly wouldn’t close our doors, but at some papers, it probably would.”
That, Buchanan said, isn’t good for anybody.
“This bill is presented as a money-saver, but would be a huge pain to the average citizen,” he said. “They could wake up one day with Dollar General next to them and say, ‘Well, where did that come from?’”
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, was quick to highlight the purported benefit of HB35 to local governments.
“I don’t think there’s a town, city or county in the state that hasn’t been had their revenue stream affected by the COVID protocols we’ve had to put in place and the shutting down of the economy,” Warren told The Smoky Mountain News. “This gives us an opportunity to reduce some of their cost of operations and providing services.”
Warren stressed that his bill isn’t a mandate but instead merely grants an option to local governments. He’s also perfectly OK with the impact it would have on smaller newsrooms.
“I think what it gets down to again is local control and a local decision,” he said. “The question has to be asked, where is that revenue stream going to facilitate the most service to the most constituents? Do you subsidize a newspaper that might be reaching 3,000 people or 6,000 people out of 150,000 in the community, or do you abate the cost of providing a service countywide affects everybody? It’s a local issue that’s going to have to be resolved and if it forces a conversation between the local newspapers and the county commissioners, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Warren’s bill, as filed, only applied to 14 of the state’s 100 counties, including Cabarrus, Catawba, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford and Stanly counties. In the far west, the original bill also included Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, as well as all municipalities therein.
Republican Rep. Mark Pless was a Haywood County commissioner just three months ago, but now he represents Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties in the General Assembly. He called the bill a mistake.
“I do not feel this is in the best interest of the residents of my counties,” said Pless. “I feel from my experience as a commissioner in Haywood the county website doesn’t have get enough visitors to adequately serve as a public notice site. As for the reason behind this, I have no clue.”
Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, was originally supportive of the idea as a savings to local governments, however he said he now plans to introduce a committee substitute bill that removes Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties from the bill. As to his change of heart, it all comes back to the state’s pesky internet deficiencies.
“It had a lot to do with broadband internet accessibility,” Clampitt said. “The process didn’t go as well as I anticipated and hoped it would, getting and bringing broadband and internet to the area. That swayed me in the direction that we need to have some way to communicate and not everybody’s going to be able to communicate with without having internet.”