Hawaii Should Publish Government Legal Notices On the Internet

Flickr: NS Newsflash

There's an old adage: When somebody says it's not about the money, it's about the money.

Hawaii newspaper publishers, usually quick to urge prudent spending by government, have jumped to the defense of a long-standing — and archaic — requirement that legal notices be published in print newspapers.

Hawaii lawmakers are considering two bills — SB2219 and SB2233 — that would eliminate that mandate and allow the state just to post the same information online, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a minimum.

"Arguably, the most important reason for legal notices to remain mandatory in print is accessibility," Dave Kennedy, senior vice president of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said in written testimony submitted to the Legislature. "Removing public notices from newspapers would force Hawaii residents to hunt for proposed government action on often difficult-to-navigate government websites."

OK, full disclosure, in case it's not obvious. I don't work for a print newspaper. Civil Beat is an online news service that doesn't earn any government support by publishing online legal notices, nor is it interested in doing so. We are, however, interested in seeing government data and information become more accessible to the public.

The Hawaii newspaper industry largely bases its case against change on accessibility. Of course, it wouldn't look good if it focused too much on money. However the Star-Advertiser's Kennedy did acknowledge in concluding his testimony that "it is true that newspapers earn revenue from legal notices. However, this is a very small proportion of our overall revenue ...

"The bottom-line issue here isn't about revenue for us; it's about public access and the public's right to know. That’s something we in the news business take very seriously."

When he appeared at a legislative hearing earlier this month, Kennedy revealed that his newspaper receives $890,000 annually (emphasis added) for publishing state government legal notices, according to a Hawaii Reporter account.

In a state where the governor touts $1 million initiatives in his state of the state speech, that sounds like a fair bit of cash.

Maybe it would be good if the testimony of the paper's executive was more in sync with the philosophy touted by its editorial page.

Before lawmakers convened, an editorial argued, "An emphasis on projects that will create more efficient government going forward — including funds for information-technology enhancements that should enable better streamlining of state functions — is essential."

Can you imagine what the state could do with $890,000 a year to improve accessibility of computers? The state library said it would need just $250,000 for one year to buy computers and printers to meet the demand it expects from a switch to online publication of legal notices.

From the industry's testimony denigrating the web, you'd think no newspaper is scrambling to build a new online business.

Take this from the Hawaii Publishers Association: "No one goes to a city or county website to find 'the news,' and most do not pull up a government website for any reason."

Actually, here's what the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a respected national research group, reported in 2010:

  • Fully 82 percent of Internet users have used a government website in the past year.
  • Nearly seven in 10 Internet users did more than one activity on a government website in the past year.

The internet appears to trouble the publishers. "On the Internet, everything seems to move, change or cease to exist without notice or explanation," the association's president, Ted Dixon, said in written testimony. "When ink is pressed to paper thousands of times, the notice is either right or wrong, but it will never be right one moment and wrong the next."

Really, if it's wrong one moment and then corrected in the next edition, as so often happens with a newspaper, was it not wrong one moment, and right the next? As a former newspaper editor and publisher, I can tell you that advertisers seek do-overs because of errors, just the way the subjects of stories seek corrections for articles that contained mistakes.

The publishers association concludes with a high-minded statement: "Saving money is a noble and important cause, but reducing the transparency of government and making it more difficult for the common citizen to know what is going on is not the correct route to that destination."

It's beyond me how putting information on the web makes government less transparent or makes it more difficult for the common citizen to know what is going on.

That flies in the face of everything we've learned from the Internet revolution. Government information is more accessible on the web, not less.

If you don't believe me, consider what the newspaper industry says about its reach and what we know about web use.

The Newspaper Association of America reports that 44 percent of adults read a newspaper on average daily. If you look at the past week, the percentage jumps to 64 percent.

The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of American adults use the Internet. In Hawaii, according to the website Internet World Stats, 83 percent of the population uses the Internet, with more than 684,000 people on Facebook alone.

That number is significant because the Star-Advertiser touts its reach in its argument to lawmakers, saying, "The Honolulu Star-Advertiser enjoys a weekly readership of more than 538,000 readers on Oahu alone in print and online (emphasis added)."

The local newspapers say the bottom-line issue when it comes to legal notices isn't revenue.

They protest too much.

It's time for lawmakers to listen to the state's new chief information officer, Sanjeev "Sonny" Bhagowalia, who says that publishing notices online will expand the state's ability to reach constituents.

SB2233, he wrote, aligns with the vision "to leverage new technologies to increase government transparency and enhance citizen engagement and participation, while providing increased cost efficiencies for state government."


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