Who guards the hen house?

A note from the president:

This weekend, I moderated a presentation at the Region 2 conference at Elon University entitled, “Who guards the hen house?” SPJVA board member Caroline Cardwell and Liz Irwin, publisher at the Dolan Media Carolinas Group in Charlotte, also served on the panel.

We looked at efforts by legislators to introduce bills that would move publication of public notices from newspapers to government-maintained websites.

Al Cross, chair of the SPJ national Government Affairs committee, has identified this issue as important for SPJ members. Check out the Jan/Feb issue of Quill magazine for his piece, “Help defend paid public notices.”

Why should SPJ be involved? Having notices in newspapers insures public access to information and guarantees the public’s right to know what their government is doing. The Virginia Code requires public notices to be published in a number of circumstances: local budget hearings, zoning matters, issuance of permits and foreclosures, just to name a few. When a locality seeks to spend public money on an improvement project, it must announce it is seeking bids from contractors so the people get the best deal.

If government notices were moved to a government-maintained website, the public would lose the independent oversight afforded by publication in a newspaper. In other words, if that happened, who would be guarding the hen house? Right now, newspapers function as an independent watchdog on behalf of the public.

Further, putting notices on a government site flips the relationship between citizen and government a full 180 degrees. Now, information comes to a citizen in the paper that is widely available. If it goes on a government website, the citizen would have to go looking for it. That is, if he or she has a computer.

The Virginia Press Association, as it has for the past several years, led the fight against a number of bills that would change the ways the public gets its information. The SPJ Virginia Pro chapter was active in the fight; at its January board meeting, the SPJVA board authorized me to represent our viewpoint on Capitol Hill. In February, I appeared before a House subcommittee and a Senate committee, arguing against passage of two different website measures. We also sent a number of email messages to legislators. The good news: Thanks to the hard work of the VPA, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and a number of publishers who appeared, the worst measures were defeated. Legislators amended a few of the bills to remove problematic passages.

The issue will no doubt return when the 2013 General Assembly convenes next January. SPJVA will continue to monitor the legislation and we will keep our members apprised of what is happening.

– Paul Fletcher

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