Online Newspapers and Public Notice Laws

By Martin, Shannon E. | Communications and the Law, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Online Newspapers and Public Notice Laws


Martin, Shannon E., Communications and the Law


An over-arching premise found in both federal and local level governments of the United States is that information about government activities must be accessible for the electorate to make well-informed decisions. This premise is expressed in a variety of statutory regulations including the Depository Library Program, the Freedom of Information Act, and sunshine laws. More recently these regulations have been updated to include electronic and digital formats.(1) Congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, for example, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law on October 2.(2) But the earliest legislative mandate of this premise is the September 15, 1789, Acts of the First Session of the First Congress, requiring the Secretary of State to "publish in at least three of the public newspapers printed within the United States" every bill, order, resolution, vote of the houses of congress, as well as any presidential objections to these actions so that the public might know what their government was doing.(3)

States have given similar attention to providing constituents with information about local government activities. Each has enacted something similar to the federal depository library program, freedom of information and sunshine laws that loosely parallel the federal concerns and solutions.(4) States also have directed public disclosure of government business through "newspapers of record," "legal newspapers," or "official newspapers" providing for public notice of local government activities as did the previously noted 1789 Acts of Congress.(5)

Newspapers as a record of the day's events and conduit for public business, in varying degrees of effectiveness, have been part of life in the United States for several hundred years. Some newspapers, like the New York Times, are even referred to as "newspapers of record." The expression "newspaper of record" as a specifically descriptive term is most often found in the realms of history, law, and librarianship of the twentieth century. The electronic versions of these newspapers offered today are not, however, exactly like the paper-based versions in a variety of ways. Newspapers across the country are now developing an array of online or electronic news products for subscribers.(6) Some newspapers are offering their own service, or are in partnership with national online services, as a way of providing the subscriber with a news service that is not of paper and ink delivery, but electronic.(7) These electronic products are different from the electronic "morgue" or backfile of each day's print newspaper that may or may not also be available through one of the large commercial database vendors.

Many local and state government charters designate a "newspaper of record," "official newspaper," or "legal newspaper" for posting public notices.(8) The legal notices usually are treated by the state statutes as classified advertisements, and are to be paid for at either an annual rate, or a line charge which may be set by the local government or the newspaper.(9) The revenues from these public notices posted in the legal advertisement section of the newspapers are an especially steady source of income for small community newspapers. But even for the larger newspapers selected as the legal newspaper of record by a community, the contract for publishing the legal notices alone may be for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1994, for example, the San Francisco Examiner offered the lowest bid of $302,000, under-bidding the newspaper of record Independent by nearly $191,000, in an attempt to win the guaranteed revenue of the city's legal notices.(10)

While the federal government seems to be moving to electronic and digital online computer venues for public notice distribution, similar distribution models are neither uniform nor comprehensive at the state and local levels. There are, however, some agencies providing electronic and digital access among city and state governments,(11) but citizens may well wonder how it can be that the usually slow and lumbering federal government seems to be moving ahead of the local government in this distribution method.

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