BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. You know those legal notices in the back of the newspaper that, of course, you flip to first to find out about new parking regulations and changes in the recycling schedule? Oh, you don't devour those? Well, maybe you should.
MAN: [ENGLISH ACCENT] Regrettably, your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your earth minutes. Thank you very much. [SPACESHIP-LIKE SOUND] There's no point in acting all surprised about it! All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaints. And it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most legal notices aren't that--critical, except of course to the newspapers who live off the ad revenue. Sasha Issenberg recently wrote in Legal Affairs Magazine about a struggle brewing over the local paper's gravy train.
SASHA ISSENBERG: Every state in the country has laws requiring counties, municipalities, and states themselves to inform citizens of pretty much the most mundane actions of government, from meetings of town and city councils, to in the piece I cite in Ohio law that requires the government to in two consecutive weeks post in a general interest newspaper news of street sweeping.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
SASHA ISSENBERG: These are classified ads for government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Virtually every state government is obliged to post these notices, but in a few states, New Jersey, Indiana, Colorado and some other places these laws are being challenged.
SASHA ISSENBERG: Yeah, there've been legislative efforts in a number of states that would free municipalities from having to buy these ads in newspapers and allowing them to post news of their doings on their own websites.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the argument against that?
SASHA ISSENBERG: The sophisticated argument against that from newspapers is one of transparency, and that there's a response on this issue that governments need to spread news of what they're doing to citizens. The real reason that these laws aren't going anywhere is that the newspaper industry is lobbying to maintain a source of largely unregulated money. Unlike other forms of ad revenue, it tends not to go down during a recession. They tend not to have to compete with other newspapers for customers as readily because these are sort of cozy relationships that have existed for a while between newspapers and local governments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "At the dawn of news," as you lay out in your piece, all there were were these government notices. Let's go through the history that you outline. You say that in England in the Middle Ages the Crown would dispatch heralds to read proclamations from the King at half a dozen sites around London. I guess that's the "hear ye, hear ye" that we see in al the movies. But then around 1665, those proclamations started being published.
SASHA ISSENBERG: Right, you developed a slightly more literate reading public, and the development of movable type, and printing became the new alternative. And the early newspapers in London in the 17th century were published by the Crown itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about in the 18th century and in America?
SASHA ISSENBERG: The Boston newspaper that came out in 1704 bore the words, "Published by Authority" in the same place that the Times has "All the News That's Fit to Print." And the point was, is that these papers sought not only their funding, but their identity and credibility by the fact that they were government published. There wasn't the development of a private press until the time of the Revolution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of things started happening after the Revolution. Journalism tried to distance itself from government. What happened first?
SASHA ISSENBERG: Well, first you had the development of independent newspapers, allied with political parties. They would get these ads and the money that came along with them, because of their loyalty to the party that was in power. At the federal level, during the Lincoln Administration, reformers killed basically federal publishing patronage, by creating the Government Printing Office, which then printed its own information and news without having to buy space in papers. Local governments ended up buying space in newspapers to announce decisions or actions that they were taking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sasha, do you ever read these notices yourself?
SASHA ISSENBERG: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What really bothers you about this is that taxpayers are paying for the placement of notices designed for them that they will actually never see.
SASHA ISSENBERG: Right. And the newspapers don't care whether anybody reads legal notices or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING]
SASHA ISSENBERG: There's no indication that government cares whether people read public notice. I mean, these are very much a legal fiction. It's what the law calls constructive notice, that government basically has created laws that saw that if this in the paper we can assume that anybody who needs to read it has read it. This isn't about a right to know, this isn't really even about transparency, other than in its most sort of mechanical, irresponsible form. And we see now that in many cases op ed pages are pushing government to use their websites for disclosure about campaign finance laws, about congressional trips. We see government websites as the place where governments can spread information for citizens. And in this case they have the benefit of being archival, they're easily searchable, unlike, you know, pages of newsprint. But instead, you know, you have sort of governments and newspaper publishers in this ongoing racket to keep this news hidden away in the back of the paper where nobody will ever see it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sasha, thank you very much.
SASHA ISSENBERG: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sasha Issenberg is a writer-at-large for Philadelphia Magazine. His story, "On Notice" is running in the current edition of Legal Affairs Magazine. (MUSIC)