Serendipity: Why Public Notice Matters

By Dennis Hetzel · October 07, 2020

This editorial was submitted by a guest columnist and reflects the views of the author.

We all live in our bubbles these days. I’m a sports fan. I follow politics. I’m from Chicago. I play guitar. I follow news in North Carolina now because I live there. Like you, I’ve got a routine for the content I consume based on my interests and priorities.

Thanks in large part to social media and cable news, it’s easier than ever to live in our bubbles. The problem is none of us know what we don’t know, and sometimes we need to know those things.

Consider your Internet behavior. You dive in and out of the sites you like and rarely explore others without a specific reason. I rarely go to web pages I don’t normally visit unless I have some reason to do so.

I’ll bet that’s true for you, too. I certainly don’t seek out the public notices that governmental bodies and agencies must purchase in newspapers.

Public notices. Maybe you call them “legal notices.” That’s a snooze-fest, right?

Not always. For example, say my neighbor’s house is under a foreclosure and there’s going to be a sheriff’s sale of the property. I don’t know that, but I’m sure interested — for many reasons that range from just being nosy-curious to concerns about what’s happening with property values.

Or maybe the school board is having a special meeting; maybe the town board wants to zone the property across the street for commercial use; maybe there’s a public hearing on a wind farm or an environmental hazard.

Or maybe my brother is an asphalt contractor or a car dealer, and he’d love to know there’s an opportunity to bid on some government business. That’s good for him. And it’s good for the taxpayers because healthy competition lowers costs.

You certainly aren’t going to see that information if the only place it’s posted is on the website of the governmental body or agency responsible. When was the last time you looked at a township website?

“Serendipity” is a word I used a lot during my years as a newspaper editor, because that’s what newspapers and journalists do at their best. It’s about discovery, finding something surprising that matters to you. “Serendipity” applies to paid content, too.

This is why print newspapers and their digital counterparts still matter, especially when it comes to notices. Lo and behold, you learn about the sheriff’s sale, the unclaimed funds that you’re entitled to receive, the overdue tax bill that your aunt or your neighbor unfortunately owes, the special school board meeting, the asphalt bid and so much more.

Some short-sighted politicians don’t see it that way. Instead, they see public notice as an expense rather than an important government service to inform citizens. Surveys across the country show people think paid notices are good uses of taxpayer dollars. In many categories of notices, such as sheriff’s sales, delinquent taxes and unclaimed funds, the benefits are obvious.

Some officials think “no one” reads newspapers any longer and the money is wasted. That’s simply not true. “We can just toss them up on our own websites,” officials say, discounting the need for accountability — not to mention the added costs for the government, such as staffing and security from hacking. Most local governmental bodies fall far short of the capacity to run websites that are safe, secure and user-friendly.

Then there’s the potential for errors, lawsuits for failing to follow statutory requirements and outright corruption. I’m from Chicago, so maybe this couldn’t happen in your town, but it’s not hard to imagine a notice for, say, a big technology contract being posted on a city’s website for a few minutes so that there only would be one insider bidder. The property flippers who drag down the value of neighborhoods like limited knowledge of notices, too, so that they can buy foreclosed property at bargain rates.

State press associations have been working hard for years to preserve the best of both worlds — public notices in print supported by accessible, searchable statewide databases of those notices online. Government websites should never be the only source of notices. Notices need independent oversight and verification. Notices must be widely available and easy to find.

Whatever the medium, publishing public notices should remain an important part of the watchdog, First Amendment role citizens expect from the press.

But only if you can find them. Notices don’t belong in bubbles.

Dennis Hetzel spent more decades than he wants to admit in the newspaper industry as a reporter, editor or publisher. From 2010 to 2019 he was executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, where he worked extensively on public notice issues. He’s also a thriller novelist whose third book, “Azalea Bluff,” will be released soon by Headline Books. He lives in Holden Beach NC where he offers writing, editing and consulting through his firm, Fresh Angle Communications. To contact him, email drhetzel@gmail.com or go to DennisHetzel.com.

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