Public Notice Draft Legislation Tabled By Legislative Committee
After Montana news organization leaders testified this week against draft legislation that would allow local municipalities to publish public notice online, rather than in print newspapers, lawmakers tabled the bill.
The draft bill, PD12, sought to allow counties and municipalities to electronically publish required notices that alert the public to future government action. But the comments in response tapped into a debate over how people consume news as the media industry evolves.
Last week, the majority of the public opposed the draft, and a written comment from one Teton County official said, â€śIf itâ€™s not broke, donâ€™t fix it.â€ť
However, at least one Cascade County official wrote that itâ€™s time to switch to digital as more people read news online.
Regional editor for Lee Enterprises David McCumber told the Local Government Interim Committee that newspapers in Montana are not going away, with more people reading Lee content online and in print than ever before. Lee owns most of the print outlets in major markets in the state.
â€śOur pages and pixels are where Montanans come for their news, and thereâ€™s no other place that could possibly be as effective in reaching those interested in public notices,â€ť McCumber said.
Ronda Wiggers, representing the Montana Broadcasters Association, said the bill isnâ€™t ready for prime time. She said that Jenn Rowell of The Electric in Great Falls, an online news outlet, originally brought the bill, but that it was impossible to define an online newspaper.
â€śI donâ€™t know how to differentiate between Jenn at The Electric, who is doing a great job of reporting public news, and the gentleman in Sidney who made stuff up about numerous of us in this state,â€ť Wiggers said, referring to J.D. Hall.
Hall was behind the Montana Gazette and apologized for fabricating a story after being sued for libel.
Former publisher of the Missoulian Jim Strauss, speaking as a representative of the Montana Newspaper Association, said that he asked Billings attorney Martha Sheehy to outline the legal requirements to publish a public notice. He said she advised it must be accessible, archivable, independent, cost efficient and verifiable.
â€śAs Miss Sheehy notes in her letter, the newspaperâ€™s print notice cannot be manipulated, is not transitory, is routinely archived in a secure and publicly available format for use by the public, the judicial system researchers and historians,â€ť Strauss said. â€śSheehy also notes that newspapers go one step further to guarantee authenticity by having each public notice published notarized.â€ť
The Montana Newspaper Association currently posts all public notices in the state online at https://www.montanapublicnotices. com/mna/ legals/ at no additional cost to the stateâ€™s advertisers who place notices in member newspapers.
However, in the afternoon work session, Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, expressed concern that the Legislature was not preparing for a digital future.
â€śWhat if we finish the session, and the brass at Lee decides, weâ€™re going to go completely digital, weâ€™d be two years without the ability to make public notices,â€ť she said, noting the exception for small counties without a paper of record that are required to publish in an adjacent county.
The bill would not impact notices from state agencies, schools or courts, according to the legislative serviceâ€™s policy analysis. The analysis also said the draft legislation would not allow for publication of notices in â€śonline-only publications.â€ť
In written public comment, Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore said she has struggled with the mandatory advertising in the Great Falls Tribune.
â€śEvery year, we are right down to the last minute on getting our ads in the paper and this last primary, we had to hire an additional company to lay up our add [sic] which was an additional cost,â€ť she wrote in an email Sept. 7. â€śMany folks to [sic] not get the paper anymore and it is important to focus on the current generation and the need for electronic advertisement.â€ť
She said she wasnâ€™t advocating replacing the newspaper placement but advocating to be able to place ads â€śwhere the majority have access and that is by digital means.â€ť
The media landscape in Montana and beyond is shifting. Both Lee Enterprises and Gannett, which owns the Great Falls Tribune, have started to scale back print on certain holidays, with the Tribune no longer printing a Saturday edition. In Lee Enterprisesâ€™ latest SEC filing, the company outlined its strategy moving forward, which focused on expanding digital audiences and digital subscriptions. Meanwhile, online news outlets have grown in size and stature across the country and in the state, including in Montana the Daily Montanan, the Montana Free Press and the Electric.
At the meeting, the commission voted to table the draft legislation, after which Dunwell moved to reconsider PD7, another bill that would amend the current law to allow small counties to post public notices on their website if they have one.
Dunwell wished to add the amendment to PD7 to include â€śor electronic news mediaâ€ť for the small counties bill, but the committee voted down the amendment nine to one. Dunwell will carry PD7, with Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitehall, as a backup.