Government

CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Public notice still critical in Indiana

October 31, 2005

I hate to get all philosophical on you, but a free press is critical to democracy.

In the free world, newspapers have always played the dual roles of information provider and watchdog. Readers expect to learn what's happening by reading newspapers.

When it comes to publicly funded government entities, the role of watchdog is particularly critical. Newspapers throw the light of day on the workings of government so citizens can see how their money is spent and keep their elected officials accountable for what they do.

Newspapers perform that service in a couple of ways. The first, and most obvious, is by straight reporting. We hire reporters who do research and write stories of interest, then we publish them.

Another, perhaps less obvious, way is through public notice.

Many government entities are required by law to pay newspapers to publish notice of certain activities-such as bids for services, financial statements, bond sales, public-hearing notices, etc.-in one, sometimes two, general-interest newspapers in the community to keep the public "in the know."

This form of public notice has been around for decades and has served our country well. Its entire purpose is to keep government as transparent and accountable as possible.

These days, as states and municipalities nationwide ponder cost-cutting moves, many are looking at ways to trim back public notice requirements or to shift the primary mode of delivery from newspapers to the Internet.

Indiana is no exception.

Over the last few years, several bills that would reduce or shift public notice to the Web have been introduced. Some of the bills have proposed that government entities publish their own notices on their own Web sites, all in the name of saving money.

Thanks to the hard work of the Hoosier State Press Association and others who believe in the public's right to know, none of these bills has become law.

In the interest of fairness, I need to disclose that IBJ Corp. publishes a newspaper, The Court & Commercial Record, which earns some of its revenue from public notice. But the issue has more than financial implications for me.

I truly believe the best way for government to remain accountable is for an independent, third party-i.e., a newspaper organization-to be the clearinghouse and disseminator of information in public notices. And, I believe a newspaper is the most effective distribution channel.

With regularly scheduled delivery and a format packed with community information and news, newspapers offer a context that compels readership. Through subscription records, newspapers can also verify that people are seeing their content.

The push to the Internet is premature. Statistics show that half our households remain "unwired." And Hoosiers who do have Internet access shouldn't be expected to check the Web sites of multiple agencies to access public notice. Likewise, information security on the Internet hasn't evolved to the point where it is reliable, so there's no guarantee government Web sites with public notice would be secure.

Furthermore, the notion that building, maintaining and staffing Web sites can save governments money hasn't been proven. As a businessman with a company with several Web sites, I'm skeptical of any savings there.

It's important to point out that Indiana public-notice rates are set by the state and, according to a 2001 study, are significantly lower than those in the four states that border us. I might add that paying a newspaper to provide verifiable, accurate and archivable public notice is no different from paying a contractor to pave a street.

This summer, publishers and representatives from HSPA have met with legislators to discuss the future of public-notice advertising. All parties to the discussions have been open-minded and willing to explore opportunities that might work for all.

In my mind, however, it's critical that these discussions and their outcomes don't lose sight of the importance of third-party publication and verification. They are critical and provide the necessary checks and balances demanded by our democratic system.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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