Guest editorial: Law would harm communities, newspapers

Around Vermont, as municipal boards reorganize, set goals and undertake housekeeping for the term ahead, one of the things every town and city does is decide its “Newspaper of Record.” The designation allows town residents to know where to look for proper notification of hearings, board meetings, vacancies, delinquent tax sales or other important municipal issues.

Vermont municipalities are required by state law to publish certain public notices in print in newspapers that serve their communities. Most or all of these newspapers also publish public notices on their websites, making them available in print and online. (The Addison Independent does both.)

This legislative session, lawmakers have been discussing a proposed change to the law that would allow communities to choose to publish public notices “online only” through an entity other than a newspaper.

That would have a significant impact on print publications. And newspaper publishers across Vermont have let the Senate Government Operations Committee know of their objections, starting with revenue and ending with relevance.

Here are some reasons to not to move to “online only” and to keep public notices published in print newspaper of record.

  • A move to “online only” would undermine democracy by migrating important public notices away from general interest newspapers onto any number of online sources. Furthermore, replacing widely distributed newspapers with digital-only options in a state where reliable internet access is still a challenge will leave many residents without access to that vital news.

A model that provides public notices both in print and online, such as we have now, meets the goal of reaching a large and diverse audience — the broadest possible cross-section of our society.

  • Some argue that the goal should be to place public notices in the media that distributes to the widest number of people. But while newspapers agree with the goal, just because something is placed on a digital site does not mean it is seen by an infinite number of people. On the contrary, readers want to know when and where public notices can be found in a logical, convenient place. The community newspaper is the place most Vermonters read about local school board meetings, what the town selectboard or planning commission is discussing. Few other media outlets cover that hyper-local news.

Logically, then, readers interested in that news are also interested in reading public notices that affect their communities in that same venue. Equally important is that the newspaper’s reporters will often write stories about critical public information, adding context, explanation and comments from town leaders. If you weaken community newspapers by taking away this revenue, you weaken the very institution that is going to follow up on those public notices.

In a similar vein, while newspaper editors and reporters will spend the extra time to put critical information in context, many digital forums do not. They may moderate posts for profanity and violating community standards, but they don’t produce local information themselves, and they don’t fact-check the information published in their forums. Why? They would argue it’s not their job. Another reason? Because fact-checking and verifying information is expensive.

Reporters and editors are bombarded with all manner of bad information, and work to elevate the signal above the noise. That is a vital public service. Shouldn’t official public notices appear alongside other similarly vetted and verified information?

In short, public notices should be published in a space that Vermonters trust as accurate and reliable.

  • The worst thing that could happen is for dozens of digital outlets to compete for public notices, leading to communities publishing them in so many different places across the state that the public ceases to understand where they might be published, and, consequently, ceases to care. When the distribution of information is cast too widely, as we’ve seen with the proliferation of “news” on social media, too few people are on the same page, and they simply don’t know whom to trust.

If the public notice runs in the community newspaper, on the other hand, readers will always know where to find in print and online, and the public at large will have a common understanding of the issues when it comes time to take action.

  • Vermont’s community newspapers provide community cohesion and a sense of shared identity — extraordinarily valuable in these polarized, isolating times — and remain in most cases the sole providers of trusted, reliable local journalism and community news.
  • Finally, if Vermonters don’t want to live in a county or community without a newspaper, don’t dismantle the structures that support them. Changing the existing law in this way would not be innovative, but short-sighted and destructive.

Community newspapers provide a sense of inclusion and community involvement. It’s a routine for many. It’s a mirror of the daily life of our communities. It’s empowerment through local knowledge. It’s willing participation.

Our story as community newspapers is one of resilience and community building. We are proud of that and we’re proud of the part we play in keeping community members informed so local democracies stay strong. Our hope is to keep playing that role for decades to come, but chipping away at newspapers’ revenue for false economies doesn’t help.

Note: Steve Pappas is executive editor of The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus; Angelo Lynn is editor/publisher of the Addison Independent.

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