Addendum: The Capital was successful in getting this corporate welfare program preserved. The Schuh administration pulled its bill. From my perspective, the most disappointing revelation is that the DC/Maryland Press Association lobbied on behalf of the Capital but, as usual, couldn’t find it within itself to lobby on behalf of real open government bills within the legislature.
Our say: Printed tax sale notices are irreplaceable, Capital, January 31, 2016.
Snider Comment and Reply Comment
Government fees to post public notices provide 5% to 10% of local newspaper revenue (the smaller the daily newspaper, the higher the percentage tends to be) and are arguably local newspapers’ most profitable line of business (like classifieds were until Craigslist and other online listing services came along with far more efficient systems). The high level of profitability is partly because the government mandate to post the notices in local newspapers gives local newspapers monopoly pricing power. Alas, conventional print newspapers have become among the least efficient ways to post public notices of any type and only continue to exist because of aggressive behind-the-scenes newspaper lobbying of elected officials. Only half of newspaper readers even read the written versions of newspapers any more (and that relatively high number is for reading local news, not classified ads) and that number is dropping rapidly. Unfortunately, elected officials have been wary about eliminating this particular type of corporate welfare because of the well known political dictum: “Never take on anyone who buys ink by the barrel.” If the Capital lost this sweetheart deal, it might actually become an advocate for a meaningful, modern public notice system that would greatly increase government transparency–a goal the Capital claims to endorse. I’m not a fan of large government subsidies to the press because it corrupts both the press and our public officials. It would be a shame if the Capital succeeded in bullying our local elected officials to keep this inefficient taxpayer subsidy.
I guess the question is those without Internet–elderly, poor and minority according to this column–do they subscribe to the print version? I recall during the housing collapse, the newspapers had a majority of pages dedicated to foreclosures.
It’s much more complicated than that. Here’s an example. Federal law stipulates that when local governments budget their PEG fees (PEG stands for public, education, & government access) to strengthen public participation (e.g., for TV coverage of county council and school board meetings), they post two public notices for public comment. Last time the county had to do this approximately $16 million was in play. PEG funds are widely viewed by IT staff as a slush fund for pet projects not subject to ordinary due process because they’re not part of the general fund. I repeatedly begged Ryan, the County’s IT head, and Lyons, its cable coordinator, to provide me notice when those two public meetings would be held. They refused. Instead, they complied with the law by posting two notices in the back pages of the Capital that nobody reads. It netted the Capital about $140/listing. Although I’m a careful reader of the Capital, I missed those notices and the one-off meetings they noticed. The result was that the IT staff got to use the funds without any meaningful public accountability, which was the whole point. I could give you many other examples. The simple remedy is to provide a central clearinghouse for public bodies and allow citizens to subscribe to public notices based on well specified criteria. Even Maryland’s General Assembly now does this for its legislation; e.g., the public can get email notifications to track specific bills. Of course, online classifieds have been wildly successful because they also offer a vastly superior product. Yes, an argument can be made for cutting down hundreds of trees/year so the Capital can print listings on its back pages that only a tiny fraction of its subscribers read, but I haven’t seen that argument made in a remotely rigorous way.