Opinion & Editorial

Take notice: Change in law would kill weeklies

This past Thursday night my wife and I attended the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s 73rd annual awards banquet, along with many of our Chronicle teammates and many hundreds of business leaders. Inside the Wildish Theater, nestled between various retail shops and restaurants in Springfield’s vibrant downtown, people socialized and networked, snacked on light hors d’oeuvres and beverages, all in anticipation of an evening honoring the people and enterprises that represent the connective tissue in our community. 

Afterward, restaurants and bars played host to different-sized gatherings up and down Main Street well into the evening. The Chronicle was recognized as “2022 Business of the Year” – a team award if ever there was one. In the sports world, an “all-star team” often exhibits poor traits, such as a lack of familiarity with each other, selfishness, communication issues, etc. 

The Chronicle, however, performs as a single unit focused on a clear North Star – hyper-local news and information – with a blue-collar work ethic and commitment to fairness.  

So a big thank you to the people who appear on the left side of this page every week – Denise, my co-owner and wife, executive editor Erin Tierney Heggenstaller, reporters Ryleigh Norgrove, Pierre Weil, Ron Hartman, photographers Bobby Stevens and Bob Williams, office manager Dana Ufford, and our regular contributors and freelancers.

The evening’s festive and celebratory atmosphere was in stark contrast to a different gathering last Thursday. The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and my publishing peers from around Oregon met with state legislators in Salem to discuss immediate threats to our survival.

Critical revenue stream

Legal notices are the lifeblood of many small papers. Like all states, Oregon requires the publication of “public notices” in a newspaper. The law was written pre-internet, of course, with the best of intentions to ensure the public is aware of government meetings and actions, property transfers, and other events that require transparency. 

The newspaper was seen as a non-biased actor in this process, simply publishing the information for the public good. We’re that extra step in the process that ensures credibility. Without us, it’s possible that someone with a vested interest and ill intent could try and manipulate the system – maybe unfairly get an early jump on a foreclosed property, for instance. 

There has been a movement within several states to remove the newspaper publishing requirement and allow for electronic-only publication of legal notices, by the attorney or individual or government agency producing it. If you think that sounds like putting the wolf in charge of the hen house, you’re right. 

To get in front of this effort, the ONPA board, of which I’m a member, has joined with several legislators to propose HB 3167, which amends the law regarding public notices. 

Publishing notices in newspapers is important. There is a significant difference between “publishing” and “searching for something on the internet” or anywhere else – same as sipping from a glass vs. drinking from a fire hose. 

“Searching” online for notices that are vital to the community could lead to never finding the notice or could be obscured so someone could never find them. This is especially true for those who aren’t internet-savvy, and of course, some people don’t have regular internet access. “Publication” in a newspaper ensures visibility to anyone in a community.

Having notices published in newspapers ensures transparency in government and a longstanding tradition of where to find such notices in your community.

Clarifying language

The key point of the proposed revision is that it clarifies the statutory language on the publishing of public notices in newspapers. As some newspapers have begun to go to digital publishing only and some in both print and digital, this bill clarifies that notices can be published in either format so long as they meet certain standards and definitions of a “newspaper.”

The Chronicle not only publishes its notices in the weekly printed paper, it posts them on its website, chronicle1909.com, and on the ONPA publicnoticesoregon.com website.

A website can be altered, even innocently as the result of broken links, and no real proof that the notices were posted in the past when they were legally obligated to.

Community newspapers and their platforms are regularly visited by the community to find out what is going on in their town, not various obscure governmental websites.

Having the ability to print legal notices comes with a financial investment by publishers. At The Chronicle, we have at least three people each week managing the intake, publication, and follow-up of legal notices. Each legal notice requires a notarized affidavit. We also shoulder the legal liability if anything is published erroneously.

Pre-covid, our legal notices made up roughly 50% of our revenue. The moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic took us to nearly zero during those first two years of the virus.

Transparency in government, democracy, civic engagement, and the health of local journalism is at stake if the Oregon Legislature allows non-newspaper entities to publish legal notices online.

We’re grateful to have survived; legal notices have returned to pre-covid levels.

We stand at the ready to serve our communities, Springfield Chamber plaque proudly on display in the newsroom. 

For as long as it lasts.

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