Guest editorial: What benefit at what cost?
<p><em>This week’s writer is Dr. Traci Griffith, professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Michael’s College and member of the Vermont Press Association Executive Board.</em></p><p> As it hurries toward adjournment the Vermont Legislature is trying to get its arms around the last-minute “Challenges for Change” report and some of the ways the administration of Gov. James Douglas has identified possible cost savings. On their face many ideas sound like they may have some merit. Others clearly are way off base.</p><p> One of those bad ideas would eliminate the posting of public notices about discontinuing new proposed state rules in newspapers of record and place them, instead, on a state Web site. The proposal will allegedly save about $96,000. The concept of the “Challenges” is to improve outcomes in government; but it misses the mark in this case.</p><p> For some background, public notices have been a major part of the history of this country and this state since their beginning. Public notices alerting citizens about important issues, ranging from meetings to public executions, were posted on bulletin boards in the town square and also printed in community newspapers.</p><p> Today, taxpayers continue to learn through public notices about proposed changes to state rules dealing with protecting the environment, hunting and fishing regulations, the Vermont Departments of Labor, Motor Vehicles, Liquor Control, Buildings and Grounds, and Forest, Parks and Recreation; the Office of Professional Regulation; and much, much more. </p><p> Public notices are about democracy, open government and transparency. News is found in newspapers. Newspapers have provided a very efficient and cost-effective way to provide information about changes in government.</p><p> Here are some interesting facts from the Public Notice Resource Center:</p><p> • More than half of the U.S. population has never viewed a local, state or federal government Web site. Out of the 44 percent who viewed a government Web site, the data may not account for Internet users who visit because they work for a government agency or otherwise are required to do so for work.</p><p> • It is more likely that someone will access information about their government through the newspaper, their local and trusted source of information. Why? Because more than a quarter of the U.S. adult population is not even on the Internet. But 83 percent of adults read a community newspaper every week, according to the National Newspaper Association.</p><p> • Fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population views a local, state or federal government Web site daily. Those 7 percent may visit a government Web site once a year for leaf collection schedules or information on polling sites. There is no indication that they are looking for public notices. It is more likely that someone will access information on a daily basis by browsing a newspaper at home over coffee, at the local library or on the bus to work</p><p> Back in Vermont, some supporters of doing away with public notices in newspapers like to claim the state payment for the notices are excessive. Yes, all public spending is important, but let’s put it in perspective. At $96,000 a year to alert 623,000 residents about important issues, the state is spending 15 cents per man, woman and child in Vermont. That idea makes the campaign really “Challenges for Pocket Change.”</p><p> Let’s face it, people for 230 years have been finding those notices in Vermont newspapers. Vermonters know that Thursdays are Public Notice Day. The proposal cites a “searchable” database. The key word in that phrase is “search.” The display advertisements are easily found in newspapers. </p><p> Without a doubt, more people will see and learn about substantial changes at the state level by having the notices in the 16 papers. How so? Check the circulation of those papers and try to imagine reaching that many people per day on a state Web site with a section devoted to state public notices. It won’t even be close.</p><p> Also, Vermont does not have 100 percent Internet service and there is a large chunk of the taxpayers that have the very slow dial-up service (if they can get online).</p><p> And nobody has addressed the issue of unsecure Web sites. Hackers can have a field day. Ask the 49 U.S. Representatives who had their Web sites hacked in one day earlier this year. The Minnesota Secretary of State Office had to shut down its Web site in 2008 for emergency maintenance when a hacker corrupted the site. Hackers can change words. Power surges, computer failures and viruses can wipe out copy. Web pages can be changed accidentally by staff.</p><p> There also is no proof of publication with a Web site. Newspaper ads are there in black and white. Newspapers also provide sworn affidavits that ads were published and also provide tear-sheets that the ad did appear. There is no such assurance with a Web site.</p><p> It is also questionable that the full $96,000 now being spent would be saved. Someone still has to compile input, proof and post the legal ads on the state web. </p><p> Vermont legislators need to say no to this bad idea. Don’t let Vermont officials remove your right to know the truth from the newspaper. Public notices are an important step toward keeping people informed. Don’t hide where tax money is being spent, how Vermont policy is being made or how our government wants to operate in the future.</p>