Two weeks ago the Texas Press Association asked our members an uncomfortable question: Are public notices important to your newspaper’s survival?
It was a rhetorical question, of course. We know how important public notices are to Texas newspapers — and to newspaper readers — but once again they’re under fire in Austin. With lawmakers considering legislation to eliminate newspaper notices, we needed to get our members’ attention — and their help — to prevent that from happening.
Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association
We urged you to contact members of the House Committee on County Affairs in opposition to HB 537, a bill that would empower county officials to post legally required notices on the county website instead of publishing them in a general-circulation newspaper. TPA staff members have lobbied hard to preserve newspaper notice over the years, but we know that our strongest political assets are members’ connections and influence. You have the clout to keep anti-newspaper notice bills from becoming law. But you have to use that clout if you expect to win this existential battle. It’s that simple.
Rep. Jarred Patterson, R-Flower Mound, is the author of HB 537. We were told that some constables in his district asked him to file the bill because they consider newspaper notices outdated and inconvenient.
We’ve heard that argument before. Lawmakers trying to eliminate newspaper public notices generally make these three arguments:
1. Nobody reads newspapers anymore.
2. Since nobody reads newspapers, nobody reads public notices.
3. Public notices are an expensive inconvenience for officials and an unfair subsidy for newspapers.
For a different perspective, consider this: the largest newspaper based in Rep. Patterson’s district —a paper that reaches 400,000 readers a month — billed only $230.70 in constables’ notices last year. In fact, the paper received only $24,066.35 in total public notice revenue from the entire county government, which spent a grand total of $321.5 million on overall operations. The cost of public notice came to only seven ten-thousandths of one percent of total county spending. Expensive? Hardly. Inconvenient? How, and for whom?
The prospect of eliminating notices from newspapers appeals to some officials for three reasons they’d never admit:
1. Notices in newspapers actually DO get noticed by citizens.
2. Sometimes those public notices make voters mad.
3. When they get mad, those voters give officials an earful.
Political life is much easier when officials can do their business without anyone noticing, and newspaper notices make it impossible to be invisible. That’s really what makes public notices inconvenient to them.
We were delighted at TPA members’ response to our call for help. Publishers from all over Texas contacted House County Affairs Committee members and spoke their mind. Then they called their own representatives, urging them to vote no if any bill eliminating newspaper notice should get out of committee. When the committee held a hearing on HB 537 on March 25, we were extremely pleased with committee members’ receptiveness to our testimony. The bill was left pending, which means it can be called up for a committee vote, but based on what we heard from the committee, that seems unlikely at this juncture.
The overall issue is far from resolved, however. Though the response from TPA members on HB 537 was gratifying, we’ll likely have to ask for your help again before the session ends May 31. There are other equally bad public notice bills orbiting the statehouse, and we’ll likely fight this battle again on other days and in other committees before adjournment.
TPA staffers fight hard to preserve public notices in newspapers year in and year out, whether the Legislature is in session or not. But no matter how hard we work, we don’t have the grassroots impact that you do. Legislators need to hear what the leader of their hometown paper has to say — no matter whether you like each other or not, and no matter whether your paper has 500 readers or 500,000.
If you want to keep notices in your paper, you need to develop and maintain relationships with your state representatives and state senators. And you need to make sure they understand these three points:
1. A newspaper public notice is a bargain for the taxpayer, and it gets NOTICED very well both in print and online. A notice on an obscure government website must be searched for, and is rarely seen.
2. This is both a business issue and a personal issue for you, the leader of their hometown newspaper. They need to know that a vote to eliminate newspaper notices would be a vote against you personally.
3. Eliminating newspaper notices could be the death knell for a beloved community business that’s been a civic pillar in their district for longer than they’ve been on this earth. Even a veteran politician with ice water in his veins can’t be cavalier about something like that.
If another bad bill gets set for a hearing we’ll ask you again to contact members of the appropriate committee, then contact your own representative and ask them to stand strong for newspaper notice.
If you don’t already have contact information for your personal representative, you can access it at the homepage of www.capitol.texas.gov under the headline “Who Represents Me?” NOTE: Send your message to both the Austin office and the district office. And ask the representative to get back to you after he or she has seen the message.
Let us know what you hear, and as always, we’ll keep you in the loop from Austin. Watch your email for updates.
We deeply appreciate your commitment in this existential battle for Texas newspapers. It’s an honor to fight alongside great newspaper folks like you.