Smaller newspapers might be severely affected by the reduced revenue from the loss of legal notices. (Photo by Getty Images)
A bill approved Wednesday by an Iowa Senate committee would create a new state website to publish public notices and eliminate a long-standing requirement for cities, schools and other entities to publish the notices in newspapers.
Proponents of Senate File 480 say it would result in significant savings for public entities that are required by state law to notify residents of meetings, public hearings, proposed budgets, elections, legal actions and a variety of other information.
Opponents say the legislation would lead to a less-informed public and to the closures of community newspapers that depend on revenue from the notices to operate.
“I don’t believe that it is the government’s job to support the newspaper industry,” said Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire. “So if that’s an issue with their business model, perhaps that’s something they need to look at.”
The bill advanced from the Senate Ways and Means Committee in a split vote, with largely Democrats in opposition.
Cournoyer argued that declining print newspaper readership, cutbacks in the days of publication and the rise of online news outlets have made newspapers a less-appropriate medium for distributing public information.
But others said newspapers are still a primary source of information for a significant number of residents who will be unlikely to go online to search for public notices in their area.
“I don’t think putting it out on a website is gonna let people know what’s going on because they’re not going to look at that website,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo. “The truth of the matter is, the average person isn’t going to go to a website to look and see where public notices are.”
Further, there are existing websites operated by newspapers and the Iowa Newspaper Association that act as searchable repositories for the notices published in print.
“There are thousands of public notices that get posted every year,” Cournoyer said, “and these local entities are paying thousands of dollars to print them in newspapers. We’re estimating that this would save taxpayers between $8 (million) and $12 million.”
The state would charge a $5 fee for each public notice posting to the proposed website, under the bill.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said government should seek to expand the ways it informs residents rather than restrict them and that newspapers would suffer too greatly from the change.
“It’s simple financial fact for these entities, that the revenue that they get from publishing public notices is an important source of income for them and helps keep them afloat,” he said. “And I think that there are a variety of reasons that we want local newspapers to stay in business to inform the community, not just about public notices, but about all manner of events within the community.”
Editor’s note: Iowa Capital Dispatch is a member of the Iowa Newspaper Association, which registered against the bill.
Clarification: This article was updated to specify the legislation was approved by a committee.
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