Editorial: Keep public notices in newspapers 

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 4, 2021

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Rep. Harry Warren just doesn’t get it.

When he personally resumed Republican legislators’ crusade against local newspapers and the public’s right to know last week, Warren attempted to skirt a gubernatorial veto by cramming as many counties as he could into a local bill, proposed that residents search for public notices instead of receiving them in a central place, gave local governments a no-brainer financial choice and ignored the negative effects his proposal would have on local, often small businesses.

Warren’s bill gives certain counties the ability to pass an ordinance and choose whether to put public notices in newspapers or on their websites. Instead, the notices would go on a county’s website for free or a fee. The compromise, apparently, is that he’s not forcing governments to remove notices from newspapers, as bills have in the past.

Warren knows a statewide bill wouldn’t make it into law.

Even if it fits the official definition, how “local” is a bill that includes 14 counties that stretch from the mountains to the coast and affects roughly 1.5 million North Carolinians?

House Bill 35 includes Cabarrus, Catawba, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Jackson, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford, Stanly and Swain counties. It includes the 12th-smallest county (Swain), the fourth-largest (Forsyth) and lots in between. It will create a patchwork approach to public and legal notices.

To be clear, the most significant problem with Warren’s bill is that it will make it harder for the public to find out what’s going on in their community.

Never mind if you don’t have internet access at home or high-speed broadband isn’t available in your area. If Warren has his way, you may need to find a way to access a yet-to-be created section of the county’s website to find out about the Dollar General moving next door, or about the solar farm that’s going to cover hundreds of acres and cut down a small forest.

The government has a duty to tell the public what it’s doing in the medium that will reach the largest number of people.

Newspapers are charged with carrying out a public service by publishing government notices, are paid for that service and remain the best way to reach a large percent of the public. Newspapers across the state remain the most complete package of community news, sports and other information.

Notices are available online, too, on the newspaper’s websites and via a statewide website maintained by the N.C. Press Association.

Government cannot only make public notices available on a website for people who are interested.

The Davie County Enterprise Record is local business in historic downtown Mocksville that employs people who provide news and information and serves as the best method for local businesses to reach potential customers without internet and social media algorithms getting in the way.

To be fair, Warren’s bill may not lead to changes in every county covered in his bill, but there’s no realistic choice when one option puts notices on a county website for free or a low cost.

The choice is made easier when local governments have a standoffish relationship with their local newspaper.

Warren’s bill, which will do nothing to expand the audience for public notices, will be a significant revenue loss for some newspapers in the state, potentially forcing some to close. It will be a small footnote on county balance sheets. For some counties, it might even generate revenue.

Warren and his colleagues will be enticed to stick it to “the liberal media” without realizing newspapers in the counties he’s targeting employ people with diverse viewpoints, including conservative ones.

Without major changes and an honest embrace of opposing viewpoints, Warren is proposing a bad bill that will further tear at the community fabric in 14 counties.

Community-minded Republicans, Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats must speak out against this blatant attack on North Carolinians and their local news. This is not a local bill. It’s a disguised attempt to punish newspapers these legislators disagree with.

— The Salisbury Post