Legals, while boring, are important
A few years ago the Sun Advocate set up a focus group of community members to see how people felt about the newspaper, what direction it should head and what aspects of it were the most valuable to the public.
One question that was posed was about what people looked at first, or held most important, of all the sections of the newspaper. Top vote getters included the obituaries, the jail bookings and courts and sports.
From what I understand, few people said that they jumped on reading the paper to look at the legals page.
The legal section of the newspaper is as important as anything, yet few people know much about it. It lists things like proposed property zoning changes, court ordered property sales, governmental meeting schedules and sometimes agendas for those meetings, and many other kinds of notices.
For many people that is not great reading. However, for those involved or that want to be involved, the legals are an important part of the paper.
In fact we have deemed it so important, so much a part of our role as a watchdog of the community, that we have joined with the Utah Press Assocations to be sure our legals are on-line, along with others, statewide. In fact there is a link on our website that will take anyone who wants to go there right to the state site (it is under the information bar on the left side of the screen and is called public notices).
That means the legal notices come out in print (in our paper) and are available worldwide on the web as well. That means anyone and everyone can have access, whether they know how to use a computer or not.
Problem is that some state legislators and some governmental officials think that day of putting all notices in print, making it easy to find for everyone, should be over.
At present, in the state legislature, there are four different bills which would either eliminate putting complete government legals in newspapers or moving to some type of hybrid system in which a small ad would be placed in papers telling people that they could go on-line to find what they wanted about an issue.
A lot of web savy people don't think of this as too big a deal, but the fact is that we have a high percentage of the population that doesn't even know how to use a computer, much less maneuver around a website if they can find it.
The other problem is the heads up mentality that something in a newspaper gives people. Few people surf the web to find legal notices; they do it to find news, sports, features, etc. In a newspaper the legals are there for everyone to see and while they may not be exactly looking for them, they often spot something that catches their interest and then they can read about it.
Here's a good example of how legals affect people. Usually in December, Carbon County publishes a list of people who are delinquent on their taxes. Those listed can be anywhere from a year to five years delinquent.
This past December, Carbon County did not publish the delinquent tax notice in our paper. Instead they put the notice on their website and sent out mail notifications as well. Under some changes that have been enacted in the past few years by the legislature, as far as I am concerned, the right of people to have these notices in public view has been degraded. But with the changes in the law the county was perfectly within their rights to not post it in the paper.
Over the last month I have received seven phone calls from county residents that wanted to know why the notice was not published. I told them the list was on the county's web site. Five of those people said they didn't have computers and had no idea how to get to the site even if they did have one. Two others thanked me and told me they would look there.
One of those never called back so I assumed he found it. The other called back and said he couldn't find it. I guided him, over the phone to the proper spot on the website and he thanked me. His parting words to me were "Why the hell didn't they just print them in the paper?"
The question I have is, how many other people that didn't call me, didn't know too. Do you remember from year to year that delinquent tax notices are printed in the paper, or this past December (probably the time of year when people are the busiest and would least remember) did you miss it like a long lost uncle?
I have no qualms about admitting that this paper, and all papers have a vested interest in legals being printed. There is money in it for us. And if the bills to eliminate most governmental legals from papers passes the vote at the state, some of those very small papers may cease to exist, because this is the kind of advertising they subsist on. That would do a vast disservice to the little communities who have no other way of getting the news to their populace.
But beyond that, as far as I am concerned any move by government to restrict information from anyone is wrong; and restricting that information by changing delivery systems when not everyone is able to access it makes it even more wrong.
This isn't about one legal notice or another; it isn't about just the delinquent tax notices; it is about the right of the people to have every avenue possible to know about pending changes in their communities, meeting times and general government transparency.
I ask that everyone call their legislative representative and ask them to oppose any measures that degrade the right of people to know what their government is up to.