Legislation that could turn swaths of rural Kentucky into news deserts by stripping weekly and other small papers of their revenue from public notice advertising has rightly jolted the newspaper industry.
Their fate rests precariously with the state Senate in the wake of Republican Rep. Steven Rudy of Paducah quietly slipping the anti-newspaper section into the House revenue bill without objectors noticing.
The Kentucky Press Association, which represents the state’s newspapers, discovered it last week, too late to prevent the House from passing the revenue bill, with Rudy’s disingenuous changes to the state public notices law.
Senators will take up the bill this week, first in committee and then on the floor for a final vote. Approval will create hardship for residents who live in rural communities with newspapers barely able to operate profitably under normal challenges. Losing the revenue from public notices could well be the last straw.
So don’t let it happen, senators. Consider the traditional purpose of the public notice law, and turn down the sly effort by Rep. Rudy to allow local governments to post the notices on their websites instead of publishing them in local newspapers.
The purpose of the law is simple and noble: Keep local government honest by making transparent transactions such as contract bids, tax rate hearings, budget audits, land annexations, zoning changes, property foreclosures, job openings and other actions and activities of government.
Way back when Kentucky first became a state, lawmakers decided the best way to do that was advertise these matters in local newspapers, whose very existence is based on informing the public and keeping public officials accountable.
That changed somewhat in 2018 when the legislature allowed local governments in urban counties to post notices to their websites. The newspaper industry had agreed in this session to expand the exemption to newspaper publication to counties with populations of 80,000 or more.
That wasn’t good enough for Rep. Rudy. He wanted all counties to have the option. He contends newspapers are behind the times; that most get their information digitally nowadays, and local government websites can best distribute public notices without paying newspapers to do so.
Rep. Rudy is badly misinformed. Newspapers are still the primary source for local information in Kentucky, both in print and online. That’s because residents are accustomed to the ease of consuming the information in newspapers and their digital sites. The papers are reaching many more people today through their digital platforms and print publications than ever before.
Local government websites, in contrast, are infrequently updated and difficult to navigate. Confusion reigns. Many would need to update their software and purchase additional hardware to make sense out of their sites.
Beyond that, local government officials don’t always play to their better angels. They can manipulate notices to benefit their family and friends. Or even forget to post notices that inform citizens about controversial issues they may want to weigh in on.
The present law makes it mandatory that public notices appear in newspapers as a safeguard to potential tilting or corruption. It keeps the fox out of the hen house.
Furthermore, without a local newspaper, some rural Kentucky communities won’t have a reliable source for local information. Residents will be in a news blackout. Surely, no state senator wants that to happen.
Stand tall, state Senate. Remove the conniving section from the revenue bill that gives government websites priority over local newspaper transparency.
This editorial originated with the Glasgow Daily Times for all CNHI Kentucky newspapers.