There's no such thing as a free ad

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 07:37 AM

It’s free to put things on the Internet, right? After all, there’s no ink, no paper. The Internet doesn’t buy groceries or have children to put through school. It’s just there, for free, all the time.

The thinking behind Senate Bill 287, which would open the door to allowing governments (just a handful for now, but you can be sure it would expand later) to publish all of their public notices only on their own websites, may not be that simplistic, but the public sales argument behind the bill definitely is.

First, though, let’s acknowledge that this newspaper has an interest in this fight. Like pretty much all general-circulation newspapers, the News-Topic gets a fair amount of advertising revenue from the legal advertising and public notices that governments now are required to publish in newspapers. It is that very expense that SB287 purports to try to save local governments.

But we doubt that those behind the bill truly believe local governments will realize much savings, if any. Adding things to websites, taking them down, making sure the site has not crashed, getting it back online when it does crash, answering calls from people who can’t find the site or who found the site but can’t find the ad that someone else told them was there or who can’t get the site’s internal search function to work — all of these things would be added duties. If you outsource the duties, that’s still a new expense. There is no printing and delivery cost to running a website, but it takes people time to do all the things involved with it.

But the larger issue is what removing these notices from the newspaper would mean for the general public. Though this is the age of the Internet, there are still a great many people — particularly low-income people — who do not have computer access at home. More still nominally have access but are not “web-savvy” — they have a hard time finding their way around websites.

And even the web-savviest often have trouble navigating government sites.

If public notices go entirely online, then, it will be difficult for large numbers of people to find them — if they even think regularly to go looking for them.

Consider what happened a couple of years ago when the city of Lexington, Va., began to install backflow-prevention devices in the water lines going to all residences, which required homeowners to install an overflow tank on their water heaters in order to prevent their plumbing systems from bursting. The city mostly relied on e-mail and a notice on the city’s webpage to notify customers. The word didn’t get around, and soon citizens began reporting burst pipes and resulting water damage to their houses.

Also from the “what could go wrong?” category is the issue of a government being entirely in charge of the means of letting the public know about possibly controversial government actions. Who would be in charge of verifying that notices went up where and when they were supposed to, and stayed up the entire time they were supposed to?

This is a déjà-vu legislative fight. Similar local bills have been introduced in virtually every legislative session for nearly a decade, and in many other states as well. The long-running determination to press the fight, absent any convincing evidence of savings, could lead you to believe the real motive behind the effort is an antipathy toward the press rather than a desire for more efficient government, but the public would suffer collateral damage.

This session, the N.C. Press Association has offered a compromise bill, House Bill 723, that would require newspapers to post legal notices to their websites at the same time they are published in print, and mandating a discount for repeat publications. If a change must be made, we support those ideas as a far better way to serve the public.