published Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Legal notices vs. secrecy

For longer than we can remember, the law — for good reasons — has required certain important “legal notices” to be published in a newspaper of general circulation.

The purpose is to inform the people about much government action — such as bids on government projects, for just one example — on subjects that ordinarily might not be reported in advance in “news stories” and “headlines.”

Newspapers publish most of the news without charge to readers, except for the small circulation price. But it obviously is necessary for newspapers to charge for advertising to cover the big costs of gathering the news, printing it and delivering it to the readers promptly, while keeping circulation costs down.

Governments generally pay regular advertising rates for required legal ads. But some Tennessee legislators and some local government officials, saying they want to “save money,” are proposing that it no longer be required that legal ads be printed in a newspaper of general circulation in Hamilton County. They want them posted only on the Internet instead.

Locally, legal ads cost Chattanooga city government about $75,000 a year. Taking them out of the newspaper and putting them on government websites might seem like a cost savings — but it also would be a way to keep a lot of government business secret. How much could that cost our people?

Printed newspaper ads are available to nearly everyone. But how many people do you think would be informed if legal ads were run only on obscure government websites?

It may seem self-serving for newspapers to say that legal ads should remain in a newspaper of general circulation. But not publishing legal ads about government business vital to our people would keep many “in the dark,” and obviously would not be advantageous to the public.

We do not believe more secrecy in government would be good for our people. Not having legal ads in a newspaper could even turn out to be “more expensive” if the people were uninformed about some important government business in advance.

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