BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, we heard about how French President Nicholas Sarkozy is going to help French newspapers by buying a one-year subscription for every 18-year-old. Here in the U.S., we're kicking newspapers when they're down. Legislators in South Dakota and Arizona are considering bills that would no longer require local governments to publish legal notices in the paper. They'd put them on government websites instead. If you've never read or even noticed a legal notice, you’re not alone. They are the small-print ads in the back of the paper where local governments and sometimes businesses let the public know what they're up to – stuff like City Council minutes and new construction projects – maybe not the most exciting read, but they do provide a steady and sometimes vital stream of revenue for newspapers. Le Templar, of The East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona, wrote an editorial against the proposed legislation. Le, welcome to the show.
LE TEMPLAR: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think these notices should stay in the paper?
LE TEMPLAR: Well, for one thing, a variety of research shows that despite the current plight of the newspaper industry, people are still reading newspapers and their companion websites far more than they're reading individual government websites. We're talking at magnitudes of 10 to 100 times more. Also, newspapers serve as sort of a central repository. If you’re a person who likes to know what different governments are up to around you, you can go to your local newspaper and read them all at once instead to having to go sit in a library all day and look through different minutes or, in the modern electronic era, hit individual websites.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how many people really read these things? When was the last time you read a legal notice not in your capacity as a journalist?
LE TEMPLAR: Admittedly, I don't read them for fun. I would even disagree with some research I've seen lately that claims there’s still a high number of people who read them. But they are read pretty frequently by certain industries – insurance investigators or lawyers who work on corporate affairs. There are people out there that do clip them or follow them on Internet databases that have been created by newspapers, and so they're still a vital source of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how much revenue is generated by these notices?
LE TEMPLAR: Estimates range anywhere from, you know, a half a percent of your revenue to up to 10 or 15 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is your concern here more of an editorial one or a financial one?
LE TEMPLAR: From my perspective it’s an editorial one in that I don't want to be in a position where governments basically are released from their obligation to share this information of what they're doing, particularly before a decision is made, and nobody has an opportunity to act on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: See, now that I don't get. If there is a law that insists that they publish it, then they have to publish it or else they're breaking the law, and then the newspapers can put them up on their websites. They don't have to be paid for the privilege of doing that.
LE TEMPLAR: That’s correct. But the advantage is that the printed page can't be changed. Internet sites can change at a moment’s notice. It’s not transparent when the item was available to be viewed and when it was taken down. Right now, whenever a government is questioned about whether they published a legal notice when they were supposed to - they just pull the tear sheet of the newspaper and show it to them with the date printed across the top. In some cases, newspapers have to provide a short affidavit saying, yes, the page you've been presented is an accurate representation of what we published that day. It’s a much simpler, more cost-effective system for government the way it is handled now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know how it could be more cost-effective. They're paying you, whereas they could do it themselves for free.
LE TEMPLAR: Well, they wouldn't- it wouldn’t be free though, Brooke, because you would have to go out and hire either internal staff or outside auditors to constantly monitor when notices were published on a website, how long they were left on the website and that website was actually available to the public to view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who says that they have to do that?
LE TEMPLAR: If you don't do that, then there’s no point in requiring publishing of legal notices because there’s no way to be certain that a government is fulfilling its responsibility. Why even have the requirement at all? As long as you believe in the purpose of legal notices in the first place, you’re going to have to have a verification system that they're being published in a timely manner.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think governments in South Dakota and Arizona are pushing for this change? Is this a cost-cutting measure exclusively or do you think there’s some nefarious effort to evade transparency requirements?
LE TEMPLAR: It’s not nefarious today. It’s strictly an effort to save money by, well, if we just put it on our own government websites, that doesn't cost us any more than we're already spending. That assumes that there’s no verification of such publication. But later on what happens is without that verification, people will figure out, well, we can put the notice up for two minutes and then nobody will know how long it was up, or we can put it up when somebody asks about it and then we can say, hey, look, it’s there. And it'll just become a lot easier to start ignoring the intent of publishing legal notices when it’s in the government’s hands to do the publishing versus they have to meet somebody else’s deadlines in order to get it published on a printed page and out in front of a lot more readers than individual government websites.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So basically what you’re saying is newspapers exist to act as a check on government.
LE TEMPLAR: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where the hell did you come up with that?
LE TEMPLAR: [LAUGHS] Something about the First Amendment and freedom of the press to begin with, I'm not sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Le, thank you very much.
LE TEMPLAR: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Le Templar is editorial page editor at The East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona.
by Young Marble Giants