Online is no public notice alternative

Internet usage statistics don’t support Wyoming governmental entities moving paid public notices to online-only alternatives.
In a Wednesday meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions meeting in Lander, state legislators, local government officials and Wyoming journalists/publishers again discussed the publishing of legal notices in newspapers.

Government agencies are concerned about the cost of publishing the notices; Wyoming newspapers are primarily concerned about the loss of availability of public information since newspapers are historically the permanent record of a community. And yes, there is concern about how the loss of these notices would affect bottom lines. Most newspapers in Wyoming are privately owned, a unique fact in a day and age of media mergers and conglomerates.

Newspapers have long served as a community’s voice, regardless of delivery method — newsprint, online, mobile.

According to the Casper Star-Tribune, Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, encouraged the groups involved to consider publishing the information online since more people turn to the Internet for news. Berger clarified with The Sheridan Press Friday how she thought the notices should be simultaneously published online and in print. She added, “I assume as we become a more digital society, readership using more electronic devices, the demand for hardcopy will become less.”

The fact that more people turn to Internet for news simply isn’t true in rural America. You can go to the Internet for news at your own intellectual peril, given how the Web is famously filled with uninformed, unreliable information, rumor, wild speculation and worse. And there’s precious little on the Internet regarding Sheridan, Wyo. — except that most of the news of Sheridan County has a genesis with its primary news source, The Sheridan Press.

Twice in the last three years, the Press has redesigned its website to accommodate a growing online readership, adding a variety of new Internet-related features. Our newly designed website also includes a feature called “responsive design.” This enables the Press to be read in a variety of sizes, whether it’s a smart phone, tablet or other. Yet, it’s still The Sheridan Press and the central dissemination point for public notices.

Some background. In January 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project conducted a national survey regarding local news consumption.
According to the survey, residents in small cities and towns prefer the local newspaper for information about local weather, crime, community events, schools, arts and culture, taxes, housing, zoning, local government and social services. They rely on television for breaking news and use the Internet or a combination of the Internet and traditional sources for information on restaurants, local businesses and jobs.

While there are many “small towns” in Wyoming, most of the state is rural. Local newspapers continue to be the number one source for most community news including information on local government. In addition, many rural area residents do not have Internet access or broadband-type speeds in their homes. According to a report released by the Department of Commerce in 2011, only 60 percent of rural households use broadband Internet service. That is 10 percent less than urban households. And while this may be hard to believe while sitting in a restaurant or public place filled with people talking, texting and checking their mobile devices, seemingly (annoyingly) all at once, some 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet at all.

Even if every resident in the U.S. had access to the Internet in their homes, allowing every governmental agency to only post legal notices online becomes complex. Does a city or town go online to post public notices, and not a county? Does a school district do it, but not a special taxing district? Keeping public notices in the community newspaper makes it easy to access — a central place to read, discuss and challenge, when needed, governmental actions, taxations, public payroll and expenditures – the whole gamut of a transparent government and democracy.

The Sheridan Press appreciates public notices and what they mean to our fellow citizens, and not from just a monetary point of view. During the Press’ redesign of 2012, we moved public notices from the back pages of the newspaper to the front section, publishing with them the popular, local historic photos that drive readership to this section. Too, the section also includes our local public officials’ contact information and why public notices are vital to the greater good of government and its citizens.
Let’s not complicate this vital core element of good local government.