Public notices bill is criticized by papers

Posted Monday, Mar. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- State Rep. Jonathan Stickland confronted opposition from the Texas newspaper industry Monday as a House committee heard testimony on his bill allowing government entities to post public notices on Internet Websites instead of newspapers.

Stickland, a Bedford Republican, told members of the House Technology Committee that his bill would enable cities, counties and subdivisions to save taxpayer money and reach a far greater audience on the Internet at a time when print newspapers are losing circulation.

"Eventually, this bill is going to happen," Stickland said.

"Everybody knows that it's just a question of whether it's now or later. I'm convinced that it's now."

The public notice requirement has been in force for decades, constituting a source of revenue for newspapers.

But newspaper executives who testified against Stickland's bill said the public notices constitutes only a small share of advertising revenue and warned that the bill would remove an independent third party from disseminating important information to the public.

"To me, this is the fox watching the hen house," said Shane Fitzgerald, vice president and editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, questioning the concept of governments' "putting public notices on their own sites."

Texas law requires governments to post public notices in newspapers, a mandate that Stickland and numerous government entities say is both costly and unnecessary in the digital age. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who supports the bill, says it costs about $50,000 a year to comply with the requirement, an amount that Stickland said can quickly add up when multiplied across the state.

Stickland said the requirement now hits taxpayers twice since government entities use taxpayer money to pay for the notices and citizens have to buy a newspaper to read the information. He also disputed newspapers' argument that they are fully independent, pointing out, for example, that newspapers typically endorse candidates during political races.

"For anyone to suggest that newspapers are a third-party impartial source, I think is disingenuous," said the Tarrant County lawmaker.

James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-enterprise think tank in Austin, supported the bill, saying, "We don't think newspapers are the best medium for communication anymore."

But several newspaper executives vigorously disputed that argument, contending that, while print circulation is declining, newspapers' combined print and digital reach far surpasses that of government Websites.

Jim Moser of Brenham, chairman of the legislative advisory committee for the Texas Press Association, said that newspapers have a national combined daily readership of 105 million, comparable to the 108 million who watched this year's Super Bowl.

"Newspaper readership far exceeds that of any other medium," he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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