Legal notices vital for government transparency

By WYATT EMMERICH,

There’s an old expression that goes something like, “Nobody’s safe when the Mississippi Legislature is in session.”

I get a stark reminder of that each time bills are introduced to allow state agencies, cities and counties to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers. This year’s version is HB 1131.

The rationale for this is to save money, but the money saved would be peanuts compared to the corruption that will follow from the secrecy.

Legal notices cost the state maybe two million dollars a year statewide. That’s a small price to keep the public informed on $30 billion a year in overall state-controlled and local spending. That’s one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of six-tenths of government spending devoted to public disclosure.

Bear in mind, the statutory-mandated reimbursement rate for newspaper legals has not been increased in 20 years. Reminds me of the gas tax. Like our crumbling roads, Mississippi newspapers are suffering. Legal notices now cost about a tenth of our normal rate.

Mississippi’s statutorily-dictated public notice rate is a fraction of what newspapers in our neighboring states receive.

Advocates of online public notices say this needs to be on the web. But that is nonsense. It is already on the web and has been for years. The Mississippi Press Association (MPA) has a statewide compilation of legal notices published in Mississippi newspapers at http://www.publicnoticeads.com/ms/. This database has full text keyword search capability.

If you are not aware of the MPA public notices website, imagine the secrecy when governments can post public notices anywhere they want.

There are hundreds of millions of websites. Finding public notices buried on some obscure government website will be like finding a needle in a haystack. That’s why this is a terrible idea, unless you want even more government corruption than we have already.

Forty percent of our rural communities still lack high speed online access. These people especially rely on their local newspapers for information and public notices.

My company, Emmerich Newspapers, publishes quite a few small weekly newspapers around this state. Business is rough. Even at the absurdly low rate newspapers are currently paid to publish notices, legal notice revenue is still crucial to the smallest of weekly publications.

If the state legislature wants to deliver a death blow to what remains the only local news in most Mississippi rural counties, killing legal notices would be a good way to do it.

For many years, the newspaper business was a good business with healthy profit margins. But the world has changed.

Classified revenue was lost to Craig’s List and a thousand other free online services. Inserts have gone down dramatically as retailers have begun to use apps. Google sucks billions from our local retailers paying for search results. And now Facebook has struck at the heart of social and community news.

None of these massive online giants spends one iota on local news content in the communities from which they are reaping huge profits.

Instead, Facebook and Google glean content created by newspapers and then promote it on their websites. They steal our content.

In France, Google has to make direct payments to newspapers to compensate them for this stolen content. No such luck for the American news industry.

It is impossible to protect our content. All someone has to do is take a photo of a newspaper article with their smartphone and post it on Facebook. Thousands of readers do this on a daily basis and think nothing of it.

 

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter, but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Our state legislature needs to think long and hard about whether we want to rely on bloggers and Facebook posts as the mainstay of our community news. Rather than cut legal notices, the state legislature should adjust our legal rate for 20 years of inflation and help community newspapers survive.

It takes money to hire reporters to go to the local city councils and board of supervisors meetings. That’s how citizens find out about tax increases and self-dealt pay raises. It takes money to go to the police station and get the police reports so citizens can be informed of burglaries, auto thefts and violence in their neighborhoods.

It takes time, effort and money to expose complex issues like the Kemper power plant. Newspaper reporting on the Kemper issue kept Mississippi ratepayers from paying an extra $7 billion dollars. That would pay for all the subscriptions to every newspaper in Mississippi for the next 125 years. That’s not hyperbole. I did the math.

It’s not just the state legislature that has an obligation to support the newspaper industry. Each one of you as a citizen needs to subscribe to your local newspaper. It is in your financial interest to live in a society where transparency battles government corruption and secrecy. Advertisers need to support their local newspapers and quit subsidizing Facebook and Google’s hundreds of billion in profits. Facebook just announced they were raising ad prices by 43 percent. The audacity!

Meanwhile, a new report from the World Federation of Advertisers estimates that within the next decade fake Internet traffic schemes will become the second-largest market for criminal organizations behind cocaine and opiate trafficking.

In 1990, there were 56,900 American journalists. Today there are 32,900. This is a terrible development for our country and is causing a level of corruption that I have never witnessed before.

Just this month, my company had to cease publishing the Monday editions at our three daily newspapers.The only alternative was to cut our bare bones newsrooms. If the online giants continue sucking billions from our small towns and cities, further reductions will be required. So sad.

I may just be wailing in the wind, but the decline of professional journalism in the United States is a threat to our democracy. Just ask Thomas Jefferson.

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