Montgomery County and state lawmakers say publishing public notices in newspapers is an ineffective, costly and obsolete process, and so they’re pursuing state legislation to end the requirement.
Some in the struggling print newspaper industry, including those who rely on revenue from the notices, say the effort is a clear attempt by government officials to gain control of information, setting up a feud that’s playing out this week in Annapolis and Rockville.
“The most important issue is the access to information and who controls it. Anyone who tells you it’s anything else is trying to fool you,” said Brian Karem, editor of the Rockville-based weekly Montgomery County Sentinel. “It’s not the way the republic is supposed to work.”
After The Gazette folded last year, the Sentinel and The Washington Post are the only two papers in which local government entities can place announcements for public hearings, proposed changes to executive regulations, asset forfeitures or other legally required notices.
City of Rockville spokesperson Marylou Berg said the city spends about $20,000 annually on the notices. Montgomery County Finance Director Joseph Beach said the county has spent about $7,500 on legal notices in fiscal year 2016, which began last July. Of that total, $6,277.32 has gone to the Sentinel.
Karem said the paper offers legal ads ranging in cost from $25 to $100, depending on the ad’s size. The rest of the county’s public notice money was spent on announcements in the Post. The county paid the two papers $14,000 in fiscal year 2015 to publish the notices.
The bills under consideration by the General Assembly in Annapolis to change the requirements were introduced by Montgomery County legislators at the request of County Council members, including George Leventhal.
On Tuesday, Leventhal tweeted a link to a story about the proposals and wrote, “Requiring newspaper notices is a vestige of last century & big cost to taxpayers as fewer newspapers are published.”
Karem responded, “Those who fail to support their local newspapers, most especially county council members are a vestige of fascism.”
“I don’t know how many people ever show up at a meeting because of legal notices in the classified ads in the back of a newspaper,” Leventhal told Bethesda Beat Thursday. “Ultimately, what you find is it’s just a straight-up subsidy to newspapers. It really isn’t about getting information out to the public. It’s interesting to see that some of the same publications that don’t like politicians beholden to special interests, when it’s their special interest at risk, they’re screaming about it.”
Thursday's edition of the Sentinel included a front-page story on the bills with the headline "Killing the Press!" and photos of District 39 state Sen. Nancy King and Del. Shane Robinson, who introduced the bills last week. Neither King nor Robinson could be reached for comment Thursday.
The paper also featured 35 pages of legal ads, including one public hearing announcement from the Montgomery County Council. Most of the other notices were notifications of name changes in Montgomery County Circuit Court and information on real estate auctions.
County and state lawmakers say a better alternative to posting legal ads in print newspapers would be to publish the notices on government websites. One of the bills would allow a county or municipality “to satisfy a requirement to publish legal notices in a newspaper of general circulation by posting the notices on its Web site.”
A second bill would amend the state's constitution to allow for that change, putting it up for a referendum vote.
District 39 Del. Kirill Reznik said he was approached by the City of Gaithersburg a few years ago about doing away with the print newspaper requirement. His bill didn’t pass after significant pushback from members of the newspaper industry, including higher-ups at The Gazette.
“With the way technology is moving, the fact is most municipalities and government entities maintain websites and, in many cases, those websites get higher readership than some of the newspapers those entities were using in order to publicize these notices,” Reznik said. “The truth is, most people in Montgomery County are online. The fact that my wife’s 85-year-old grandmother knows how to use Facebook better than I do kind of eliminates the idea that there are elderly people out there who just want to read newspapers and who can’t use the Internet.”
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland, Delaware and D.C. Press Association, said the issue goes beyond accessibility concerns, though she pointed out the bills would apply to the entire state and not just Montgomery County.
“You know when you see something in print what date it was run. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about hacks on websites and dramas on the Web. We want to make sure these can be verified and accessible,” Snyder said Thursday. Snyder acknowledged that losing revenue from the ads is a concern of newspapers around the state, but said the price of publishing the notices isn’t enough to justify the government taking over responsibility for them.
“Newspapers have been providing really effective notices for hundreds of years,” Snyder said. “This is, in our mind, the government overreaching and literally replicating a service that the private sector already does. It’s not a shame to make money. There are costs involved in providing notice and that’s just the way it is.”