Move to online public notices looms over papers

ByABC News
May 22, 2009, 7:36 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The tough economy means the growing suburb of Apex can't replace some computers and police vehicles. So the town's mayor is pleased to save $13,000 by posting public notices of rezoning requests and major land development plans on the town's website, rather than in the local newspaper.

"This was good for us for this year, that we didn't have to include that advertising cost in our budget," said Keith Weatherly, mayor of the Raleigh suburb of 35,000, which has an annual budget of $27 million.

To the dismay of struggling newspapers also beset by the same dragging economy, other U.S. communities wish they could get similar savings.

State laws require newspaper notices to inform citizens about official activities, such as changes to tax laws, foreclosures and public meetings. Newspapers have long been deemed the best outlets for these notices because they are widely accessible, relatively inexpensive, have a documented list of subscribers and are easily preserved for records, said Shannon Martin, an Indiana University journalism professor who has studied moves to allow Web posting.

These days, though, city and county governments say posting public notices on websites can save taxpayer money and reach a public increasingly leaving the printed page behind.

Publishers who fear losing one of their most reliable revenue streams contend that nothing replaces the local newspaper as a community bulletin board. Newspapers run public notices on their websites in addition to the printed pages, and press associations in about 20 states compile the notices into a searchable database.

Newspaper advocates worry an online shift will reduce the public's understanding about civic affairs and ability to act on the information. In North Carolina, the NAACP opposes online notices because poor and rural communities still have limited access to the Internet.

"People in my community still heavily read the newspaper. They may not be able to afford Internet access, but they can afford 50 cents for the newspaper," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "These are not want ads to buy a car. Many times these notices are about issues like zoning than can affect people in the long term."