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Guest view: Public notice is vital to newspapers, which are vital to communities

Efforts are underway in the Minnesota Legislature to further damage the future of the state’s community newspapers.

The Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) has proposed last-minute legislation allowing school districts to publish their public notices on school websites rather than in their local newspapers.

In its argument for moving public notices to school websites, the MSBA points to the loss of community newspapers and the increasing difficulty of finding one in which to publish its notices. Although those instances are rare, they are happening too often lately.

Earlier this month, Alden Global Capital’s operating entity announced it would close the doors at eight Minnesota newspapers: the Hutchinson Leader, Litchfield Independent Review, Chaska Herald, Chanhassen Villager, Jordan Independent, the Shakopee Valley News, Prior Lake American and Savage Pacer. Their demise comes at the end of the month.

However, vigorous efforts are underway in these communities to replace them. Public notice income will be essential to helping the citizens of these communities start and operate newspapers.

“School districts, in response to these closures, are forced to go to a regional source outside of the school district community to publish the required postings at higher costs and a greatly diminished effectiveness in getting important information to the public,” the MSBA says.

Rather than arguing for legislation that helps their community newspapers survive or get restarted with local ownership, their efforts aim to ensure even more communities lose newspapers.

In the Minnesota Senate Education Policy Omnibus bill (SF 3567), there is language that would allow school public notices to drop newspaper publications and put them on their websites. A House bill limits the language to a temporary exception for communities that have lost their newspaper – it would lapse when a new newspaper was publishing.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association’s effort to work with the MSBA to craft legislation that addresses both of our needs in getting notices published has been brushed off. They feel they can take advantage of the moment in rushing through legislation that damages government transparency and community newspapers.

As the MSBA seeks to remove public notice from newspapers, it is surveying its members to build an argument that we don’t matter anymore and are too expensive. Public notice costs are a tiny fraction of a school board’s budget. However, when you consider its value in print and in supporting the local newspaper, it is invaluable.

At times, our importance may seem routine with few school board topics of pressing importance. But at other times, we are critical to a school district’s financial future and the equality of education our children receive. When school districts seek operating levies to support education or propose a levy for constructing a new building, who will inform citizens of the importance of those decisions?

If the newspaper is gone, driven out of business by local governments lacking the foresight to support their local publications, the school boards will plead their need through their social media sites. Opponents will do the same. Flyers will be delivered to your mailbox. But who will write the story that lays out the reasoning behind a levy proposal and the arguments against it from a neutral position? We know misinformation will run rampant on the internet.

Our job is to define the purpose and find flaws in the arguments for or against a school levy.

How many people visit a school website for public notice information? It’s probably about the same number who regularly show up for a school board, city council, or county board meeting. As someone who reports on all three, we can give a pretty good estimate — almost no one.

If you are required to publish public notices of your actions but would rather hide what you are doing, a good place to put those notices is on your government website.

Public notices published in Minnesota newspapers are also posted on their websites and on the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s searchable state website.

America's founders knew an informed electorate was fundamental to a legitimate representative democracy. This conviction is why they gave newspapers virtually free postal rates and public advertising. Taxpayers were playing an essential role in educating the public through newspapers.

Commercial advertising picked up the bill for news in the mid-1800s, and newspapers flourished until the late 1990s. Then the internet siphoned off much of the advertising that supported thousands of newspapers into the hands of a few multibillionaires. Meanwhile, postal rates have skyrocketed, and public notice advertising is being placed on government websites with increasing frequency.

Public notice has been fundamental in supporting community newspapers in America for centuries. That purpose is as important today as it was at the founding of our representative democracy.

We know how frustratingly slow in acting both our federal and state governments can be in addressing a critical issue. With public notice, financial support – though tiny compared to the overall need – is in place and law. Take it away, and Minnesota will lose even more newspapers. Take it away, and efforts to bring communities a new, locally-owned newspaper will be frustrated or killed.

At a recent Minnesota Newspaper Association convention, we asked Gov. Tim Walz if he knew how important newspapers were to their communities and if he would support legislation improving their financial security. He replied, “Bring me something.” He firmly committed to supporting Minnesota’s newspapers.

Governor Walz, we need your support for public notice in newspapers. We need the support of our local school board members and superintendents — tell the MSBA it is wrong to seek legislation damaging newspapers in their communities. We need the support of our state legislators. And we need your support. Let your state and local elected leaders know you reject the MSBA’s proposals.

- Reed Anfinson, Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

 
 
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