Government accountability requires informed public

Your local newspaper is under attack in Olympia, and regardless of how self-serving it might seem, we don't think that's good public policy.

Bills introduced in both houses of the Legislature last week would give cities and counties in the state the option of posting their government notices on their own websites instead of the legal section in the newspaper.

If the proposals are successful, newspapers would lose revenue, of course. That job-killing aspect of this legislation is important, but not the best argument against it.

We hear enough from critics of the mainstream media to know that a decline in our bottom line won't bring tears to every eye.

But some of the hardest hit newspapers will be in small communities. Some might even fold as a result of this legislation. That will cost more than jobs.

Community newspapers still chronicle our most important affairs -- marriages, births, deaths, graduations and other milestones. State lawmakers aren't serving their constituents by hastening the demise of these written records of our daily lives.

But that doesn't really make the case for continuing to require public notices to appear in the classifieds. As much as some newspapers need the revenue, we aren't in favor of subsidizing our industry.

The public notice requirement isn't a subsidy, however.

It's a fee for service, and pretending that a government agency's website can duplicate that service is nonsense.

The legal announcements section of the newspaper is where Washington residents go to find notices of government hearings, rule-making activities, public meetings, probate filings, foreclosure notices, bid opportunities, alcohol permits and much more about what's happening in our governments.

In a statewide readership survey conducted in 2009 for the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association by Pulse Research, 86 percent of respondents agreed that agencies should be required to publish legal notices in their newspapers. And 53 percent said they or members of their households regularly read public notices in their newspapers.

We aren't against publishing public notices online. In fact, we post all of those that appear in our classifieds on tricityherald.com without any additional charge. We wouldn't object to a law requiring us to do it.

But there are real problems with allowing city and counties to meet their public notification requirements by posting to their own websites.

For one thing, not everyone has access to the internet. And those who do are far more likely to visit a newspaper website. In virtually every local market, the newspaper website is predominant.

The Tri-City Herald's site had more than 34 million page views in 2010, averaging over 2.8 million page views and more than 350,000 unique visitors every month.

Traffic on local government websites is much smaller. The city of Kennewick, for example, had about 11,000 page views from Nov. 8 to Dec. 8, with about 5,500 unique visitors city officials report.

The goal of public notice requirements is to ensure the public is informed of government actions that affect their lives. Newspapers fill that function by bringing public notices to the attention of a mass audience.

If notices disappear from newspapers, local governments will see some savings but not much. Typically, the cost represents a fraction of a percent of city's total budget.

Every penny counts these days, but good government comes at a price. Keeping the public informed is an essential part of the bill.