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Our Opinion: Keep gov’t notices in newspapers

When the Minnesota Legislature goes into session on Tuesday, one of the issues it will be looking at is a push from counties and cities for permission to move their legal advertising out of newspapers and onto their own websites.

We understand the motivation: Saving money by essentially self-publishing.

Newspapers have been fighting to keep their “legal newspaper” status for several years now, and part of it is self-serving — newspapers make money off that legal advertising.

But money isn’t everything, and there are good reasons to preserve the existing system, reasons that local governments may not have thought about in the rush to save money.

Here are a few points to consider before sweeping away more than 200 years of tradition. Remember, once it’s gone, it won’t come back:

• Public notices in newspapers are the permanent records of what a public body does, as well as the notification of what it intends to do.

There is no archival history to government websites as there is with newspapers. Years from now, any citizen could go to a newspaper and read what the government did.

How, if challenged by a community group, could a government agency prove it posted adequate notice on its’ website?

The reliability of newspaper publication is so well established that courts accept the published contents as evidence, and require it for many court actions.

In previous years, the state auditor and attorney general have expressed reservations about the potential loss of paper notices that courts want as independent verification.

• Do we really want government to have sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its own notices?

Newspaper publication prevents government from deciding when and how the notice is published, and whether it is  changed after it is published. It’s too easy to make things disappear without a trace in the digital world.

• Many low income and senior citizens don’t have easy access to the Internet, or prefer not to use it often.

AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, representing over 700,000 Minnesotans 50 and older, opposes removal of public notices from newspapers. There are still 28 percent of Minnesota residents who don’t have Web access.

• Legislation to substitute government web posting for newspaper publication has never contained any requirements on how government must post notices.

Without standards, there is no real incentive for them to do the job right, and no penalty for that failure. Current law has extensive requirements for what newspapers must do in order to disseminate notices and how it must be done.

• Newspapers and newspaper websites are where the public has always gone to get news about their government —not government websites.

The Minnesota Senate asked the public, in a recent state fair poll, what their primary source for acquiring government or political information was, and community newspapers were overwhelmingly the first choice.

In a Scarborough readership study last year, 78 percent of Minnesotans polled said they believe it is an important requirement to keep citizens informed by publishing public notices in newspapers.

It may seem like it’s useless to fight the sweeping changes brought by technology, but it’s time to start fighting back: Some traditions are worth saving: Once they’re tossed out to save a buck, there’s no going back.