Cities, counties seek to opt out of newspapers

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 9:52 PM

Proposed changes would allow governments to publish notices on their own websites.

Local governments are taking on an adversary they often try to avoid in this year’s legislative session: the state’s newspapers.

Cities and counties are trying to fight what they see as mandatory and costly advertising in local papers — public notices including meeting minutes or summaries as well as financial and other statements — arguing it should be enough to simply post such information on their own websites. The newspapers claim the battle is about whether governments can be trusted to properly and fairly disseminate information to the public and how many people will see it.

A state Senate committee heard testimony Wednesday about a bill to make the switch.

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, its chief author, said governments would not be mandated to make that switch but would have the option. Governments publishing exclusively on their websites would also have to make print copies available at their offices, in public libraries and by mail upon request.

“There’s less costly ways to communicate with our residents than essentially buying ad space,” Pederson said in an interview.

Associations representing Minnesota cities, counties, townships and school boards are pushing for the change, arguing that governments can publish the notices online for less money and citizens are increasingly turning to government websites for information anyway.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association argues, among other things, that the long tradition of notices in newspapers — and now also on newspaper websites — ensures that many more people will see them, that they will be placed on time and that they won’t be manipulated after being posted.

The money spent on notices varies widely across the state.

The city of Minneapolis spends, on average, about $130,000 a year to publish notices, 78 percent of them in the Finance & Commerce newspaper but also in the Star Tribune, city officials said.

Hennepin County spends about $125,000 a year to publish notices in those two newspapers, said Beau Berentson, policy analyst at the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Blue Earth County, which passed a resolution in mid-February supporting the change, has recently spent between $8,800 and $9,800 a year on notices. There, the Maple River Messenger, with a circulation of just over 1,000, won bids to publish some notices.

When the notices go in small papers, “the majority of the people in the county don’t ever read those papers,” Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said. Other Blue Earth notices were published in the Mankato Free Press, which reaches about 60,000 in print daily and is visited by about 70,000 people online a week, according to the newspaper.

While public notice publishing costs are typically a very small percentage of a government’s overall budget, officials testified that the money does matter.

Responding to a question, Barbara Olson, school community relations director at Osseo area schools, testified that the district budget is more than $230 million and $6,000 is spent per year on publishing notices.

“It’s a small amount in the big scheme of things, but we could use $6,000 to provide books for an entire year for one of our junior highs,” she said.

In many rural counties, the cost per capita for newspaper publishing is much higher than in more populated counties, Berentson said.

Orwellian stance?

More than 40 counties have passed resolutions supporting the change, Berentson said.

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