Editorial: Keep public notices in newspapers

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Three Republicans in the N.C. Senate filed a bill March 21 to let local governments post public notices on their own websites rather than buying space in newspapers for them, and to post legal notices on their own websites and charge lawyers for that service.

They said in a press release that the bill incorporates provisions supported by newspaper publishers.

But the N.C. Press Association, of which StarNews Media is a member, said it does not support the bill.

Neither do we.

Hiding away public notices on the websites of counties, cities and towns would not, as the bill’s supporters claim, “increase access to public and legal notices by making them available for citizens to view for free online.”

Counties and municipalities are already free to post their notices on their websites.

But far more people read newspapers in print and online than read material on county websites, according to the NCPA.

This comes up every few years. In 2013, the StarNews congratulated then-State Rep. Rick Catlin, a New Hanover County Republican, for admitting what everybody knows – not everyone has access to the Internet.

He opposed letting local governments restrict public notices to government-owned websites or TV channels, eliminating the requirement that public notices be published in general circulation newspapers like ours.

That year, we noted that our print and digital editions reached more than half the adults in a five-county readership area, most of them in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.

In 2015, we congratulated Republican N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and Sen. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, for sponsoring a compromise bill keep public notices of government actions in newspapers.

That compromise bill passed in the state House 115-4 last session but never made it into law. Now, several state representatives are expected to unveil it – again – in coming days.

The compromise bill keeps the requirement that government notices be published in newspapers and requires that the newspapers post those notices on their websites, as the StarNews already does. And it provides a 15 percent discount on notices that must appear more than once.

Here at the StarNews, we’re particularly proud of the fact that the story staffer Julian March wrote about a community’s effort to save Moore Cemetery came about because of a public notice he read in the StarNews.

March received the first Public Notice Award given out by the NCPA for that story.

Local governments are free to publish their notices on their websites. But removing them from widely read newspapers would be a blow to the public’s right to know.