Important legislation is on the horizon
This year, as in all years, some important legislation will be coming before the legislature. And at least one of those issues have to do with your right, and others rights, to know what is going on in your state and local governments.
Last year the legislature passed a bill which changed the way legal notices would be conveyed to the public. First, legals would still appear in a newspaper of general circulation in each area of the state, but the caveat to that was that they also had to be on the web in one form or another.
Rather than have the state put up a web site which would carry those legals, the Utah Press Association (UPA) agreed to create one site (utahlegals.com) to accommodate the law. That was done and it appears the state has been happy with what the association has accomplished.
However the second half of this issue (and that is being simplistic) was that government entities would no longer be required to place legals in newspapers in first and second class counties starting in 2012.
This kind of move would be a blow to those newspapers and the people they serve. If anything the UPA stance has been that our government needs more transparency, not less. By putting many of these legals only on the web, it would cut out a part of the population that relies on newspapers for that kind of information.
For those of us in the media business, we are generally at least somewhat technically savvy and looking for things on the web is part of our daily job. But for many of our readers this is not true. They either don't have access to a computer or have little knowledge of how to either use either computers or the web.
In addition, legals are not often something people pick the newspaper up for. There is a thing I call "the serendipity of discovery." People usually don't look at the newspaper just to read the legals; they are looking for other things. But often they will be reading a page, such as the sports page and the legals are on the next page. As the peruse the sports they may notice that the legal page has a map or a something on it that catches their eye. Upon examination they may find that there is a zoing change going on in their neighborhood they didn't know about or some type of project that they had no idea was coming to their area. Then they are drawn to the legals, read it and are informed.
This would never happen with the web, because those who go to the website are generally searching for something specific, not just reading the legals to see if there is anything happening. It is a completely different kind of process.
Transparency in government is another issue. Because of laws regarding legal notices. Throughout the years newspapers have become the watchdogs of the community and have provided transparency to a lot activities that would have never been known to the common citizen if such notices did not appear. I know my own personal attitude toward government (regardless of whether it is local, state or federal) is that if they don't need to tell you something, they generally won't, unless it is a sure fire thing to make them look good in the eyes of the public. So having legals available in both newspapers and on the web is a good thing because it provides more places for citizens to see what is happening.
There is also a problem of being able to absolutely verify that a notice was published on the web. While web sites can be manipulated well after a date has passed to show that some legal has run when it was supposed to, the actual publication in a newspaper cannot be manipulated. Print is a verifiable source of publication.
This past spring UPA hired an independent company to do a study of citizens throughout the state concerning their use of legals in Utah. We didn't know what to expect, but after surveying hundreds of people by phone, asking pointed questions and getting people to think about newspapers and how they use them, we were happy to see that people, in general, like the idea that legal notices need to be placed in newspapers. They are also generally don't like the idea of government having legal notices only posted to their own websites. When it comes right down to it, they don't trust government entities to be sure that what should be there will always be there unless a third independent party (newspapers) is monitoring the situation.
UPA has been working with members of the legislature to get this bill changed. While much of the associations membership does not fall within first or second class counties, we all know that a bill like this could easily be eventually extended to all classes of newspapers.
It will be important this session that all citizens support this effort to change the law and make sure legals are placed in all possible venues, regardless of the size of the city, county or local area.