By Misty Poe
The Times West Virginian of Fairmont
A primary purpose of the Times West Virginian is to serve the public by holding government at all levels accountable to local residents.
We do that with daily coverage of city, county and state government, and also by publishing paid public notices in the classified advertising section of the paper.
So we take seriously political talk, idle or otherwise, about removing public notices from newspapers and posting them instead on government websites to save the few dollars spent on publishing them in print.
The notices alert residents to vital government activities such as the wording of proposed ordinances, annual budgets, requirements for bids on public works projects, tax liens, foreclosure notices and a variety of other actions that affect lives and pocketbooks.
State law requires public notices appear in newspapers, and there’s a reason for that. We are trusted keepers of public transactions because of our independence from government, the permanency of print and the fact that newspapers feature wide distribution.
Transparency in government would be at risk if public notices were produced, processed and archived by government for the purpose of informing the public. It would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
No specific legislation has been proposed yet in West Virginia to substitute government websites for newspapers in alerting citizens to public notices. But there’s always the possibility politicians will attempt to stop notifying the public in newspapers about what they are up to and how they propose to spend tax money.
The Times West Virginian is the daily newspaper of record for Marion County, and has been for 150 years, which means we print public notices from state agencies, cities, towns and the county. We also post them to our website for people who prefer to read them online, and they are aggregated by the West Virginia Press Association, along with those from other newspapers, on a statewide website for even greater access.
As a business, we have to charge to publish these legal notices. The fee is reasonable, helping to cover the cost of paper, ink and distribution to our thousands of readers in print and online.
Switching from newspapers to government websites would not save money when you consider the cost of technology and employees to process, curate and archive the information.
Yet it is not just about cost, but rather access. Newspapers serve as a central reference source for federal, state and local public notices. Absent that resource, residents would have to track down the information from various government sites, most of which are difficult to navigate and seldom visited.
A small West Virginia contractor, for example, would need to review several websites daily to avoid missing advertised requests for government projects. Residents might miss a legal notice for something as basic as the water quality of the river flowing through their town because they did not routinely check a government website.
Public notices belong in newspapers because they are a trusted, easy-to-access source for critical information about government. We serve as a clearing house for multiple government agencies to publish items in one location, delivered right to your doorstep or inbox. To remove that source would be a disservice to the public.
Misty Poe is the editor and general manager of the Times West Virginian and can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 304-367-2523 or on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV.