Today, the Hartford Courant placed another full-page ad urging readers to contact legislators to tell them not to repeal a law which requires state and municipal authorities to print "public notices" in newspapers.
If the 80-point type were not so alarmist, and the text accompanying the screaming headline not so earnest, one might dismiss the ad as satire, so skewed is its logic, so ironic its message.
Alarmed that yet another revenue source might be drying up, the Courant, and the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association is panicked that new legislation would only require public notices to be posted on town and city websites.
If you're up for a laugh, follow, with me, the copy which, in the end, consumes itself with a specious argument.
The copy begins:
Pending legislation may remove your right to read public notices in newspapers, moving them from the public domain to the internet.
Strange, the internet, which has gotten the reputation for free content, is far more in the "public domain," than is any newspaper, which requires that you pay a fee to purchase it, and slaps a copyright on every printed word.
The ad goes on:
Public notices are an important tool in assuring an informed citizenry. They have helped develop American into a participatory democracy for hundreds of years and where it counts most: how your tax dollars are spent, how policy is made and how our futures are charted.
Ironically, those same public meetings, announced by public notices, have been abandoned by the publishers and editors of the dailies who still want to collect a fee for announcing these meetings. I can't remember the last time I saw a Hartford Courant reporter at a town meeting here in Middletown, though they flocked to the town to cover a major disaster when they saw dollar signs in disaster headlines.
Continuing to read the ad we find:
They (public notices) are located in easy-to-find sections of your newspaper. And they are fully accessible to everyone - unlike the internet, which is not accessible to everyone.
A recent report noted that Connecticut was among the five top states in residential broadband penetration. At 20.7%, that's far from complete penetration, but the number does not include penetration via school, public sources like libraries, and the workplace. Simple math tells you that the Courant's circulation (approx. 155,000) is 4.5% of the state's population (approx. 3,400,000). That of course does not include pass-along readership, or use of Courant stories in unattributed radio and TV reports. So if broadband penetration is 20% and newspaper penetration is 4.5%, information on the web seems likely to be much more "easy-to-find."
The ad also says:
Less than 10% of the U.S. population view a local, state or federal government website daily...This means that nine out of ten people may never see a given notice.
Of course, Connecticut seems to be ahead of total U.S. projections if the penetration stat noted above is true. But I would agree with the ad that there's unlikely a reason for most citizens to access governmental websites, which by and large, are poorly designed, difficult to use, and notoriously badly maintained, unless they are looking for something like a "public notice." Perhaps the Courant would be better advised to urge passage of a public notice law which requires state and municipal websites to be standardized, easy-to-use and access, and timely in their notifications.
In the end, however, the statement is a false syllogism ("All pine needles are green. This frog is green. Hence this frog is a pine needle.") Because 10% of the U.S. population visits a governmental website daily, does not mean that the other 90% won't see a given notice. There are so many things wrong with the conclusion drawn from a non-connected set of statistics, that it would take a whole essay to explain why. Using the Courant's logic, if 10% of the U.S. population eats broccoli today, 90% of the public may never eat broccoli.
And another bedeviling statistic in the ad:
83% of adults read a community newspaper every week, according to the National Newspaper Associatiton.
First of all, if you're going to quote a statistic, don't derive it from a self-serving source funded by the very industry it purports to examine, uh, objectively.
Second, the highest percent of readers I could find in a decidedly non-scientific survey of surveys on the web says that, "three-quarters of American adults (74%), or nearly 171 million people, read a newspaper -- in print, or online (my emphasis) -- during the past week." That's a heartening endorsement of news, but one wonders what the percentage would be minus the online readers. In addition, the same survey says that readership is slowly and consistently dropping.
Permanency is not something I associate with printed paper which I pile on the curb each week. Granted, libraries have historically done a good job of keeping newspaper archives. But, correct me if I'm wrong, that actual in-house print archives (morgues) have given way to the very computer data bases which, if we are to worry along with the ad, are "subject to computer crashes and hackers." And BTW, what happens when a daily goes under? Likely, the print archives end up with the worn out chairs and desks, in the dumpster. Permanent indeed.
The ad winds up its pitch claiming that "Newspapers are easily verifiable, fully transparent and represent a secure third party who has nothing to gain from any notice." This sentence is corporate gibberish until it gets to the final hilarious clause. "Nothing to gain?" Then what's the point of the ad in the first place? Of course newspapers profit from publishing notices, otherwise they wouldn't be so nervous about another income stream disappearing.
The final irony is the claim that "every public notice which runs in a Connecticut daily newspaper, is automatically upoaded to that newspaper's website and to CTPublicNotices.org." Sound of palm slapping forhead. So, the very medium which the bold-faced ad has railed against - the mercurial, unreliable, inaccessible web - is the penultimate argument for keeping public notices in print? Hello, you just wrapped your argument in a ribbon, tied it in a bow, and untied it again.
One final word. Have any of you dear readers, lawyers and government employees exempted, ever read, or tried to read one of these public notices?
Pick up the malnourished classified section of any daily and you're bound to find one of these notices, that I would bet, you have never set eyes on before. Printed in a crabbed and tiny typeface, and written by lawyers, for lawyers, these notices are a legal requirement based on a CYA principle, that allows bureaucracies to explain to regular citizens that "we published notification of that" when you discover something happening in your town which mystifies you.
The truth is, that regular, clear notification on town websites ought to be legislated, and publicized as the first, and most logical way all municipal and state notifications are made available to citizens. And to take it a step further, every citizen who would like to receive all notifications should be able to sign onto an email list which guarantees the delivery of said notices to their email boxes. The sooner the better.
And the cities and states should be freed from the burden of spending thousands of dollars to prop up unprofitable entities which refuse to do the work of in-depth, day-to-day journalism.
These ads are a pathetic display of desperation by daily print newspapers which are trying to preserve income streams that are drying in the heat of internet competition.