By Mike Blinder
Publisher of Editor & Publisher Magazine (E&P)
and CEO (Chief Evangelist Officer) of its parent company, The Curated Experiences Group
Most municipalities in the United States have laws requiring that all public notices be published by a third-party independent newspaper – a concept that dates back to the 1700s. This practice is based on the idea that people in a democracy have the right to know what’s going on with their government and what legal proceedings are going on in their community.
There is no doubt that the newspaper industry, especially at the individual state level, expends a great deal of resources to maintain this precedent, not only because the public notice lineage creates necessary revenues that fund our writing. These small, innocuous affectations helped provide, in many cases, another level of transparency within local governments that uncovered and delivered a final check on corruption and the possible theft of taxpayers’ money.
Over time, some states and municipalities have found various reasons to try to end the practice of placing public notices in state journals. For example, in a March 2022 episode of “E&P Reports,” that magazine reported how the state of Florida passed sweeping legislation, reversing its stance on the practice in what is rumored to be the result of a vendetta between the state’s governor and a hard-hitting investigative reporter (“Florida’s reversal of public notice”).
More recently, the city council of the small town of Westmorland, Kansas, took advantage of a loophole in the state charter that allowed some city governments to avoid placing such notices in a newspaper by declaring the rule of origin in the exemption. The council’s demand for change was simply a way to save taxpayers’ money.
On August 11, 2022, Ned Seaton, Managing Director and Editor of the Manhattan (KS) Mercury and The Times of Pottawatomie County Kansas, Westmorland’s state newspaper, stood before the council and argued a case that reminded council members the three main implications of the government’s choice to withdraw newspaper opinions: budget, transparency and accountability. In the actual text of the recorded speech, Seaton told the group, “I ask you to reverse your vote last month and continue to stand up for transparency. I ask you to designate – as your predecessors have done for decades – an independent printed subscription newspaper as a verifiable method of informing the public of what you do. By doing so, you’ll not only be supporting a regional family business and its employees who cover your meetings, but you’ll be using cost-effective media and making a statement that you value government accountability – at least to the extent of four-tenths of one for cent of your budget. His compelling argument worked; the board voted to reinstate the practice directly afterwards.
In this 159th episode of “E&P Reports,” we interview Ned Seaton, managing director and editor of the Manhattan (KS) Mercury and The Times of Pottawatomie County Kansas, the official newspaper of Westmorland, KS. The city decided to suspend publication of public notices in the local newspaper, then backtrack when Seaton reminded it of the value and overall benefits of the practice itself to the community as a whole. This is a situation that deserves to be remembered.