Opinion: Disabling ‘guardians’: Think before pulling legals from papersIt’s Thursday, and for those of you who reside in small towns in South Dakota, that means your weekly paper is either still fresh on your kitchen table or in your mailbox.
By: Korrie Wenzel, The Daily Republic
It’s Thursday, and for those of you who reside in small towns in South Dakota, that means your weekly paper is either still fresh on your kitchen table or in your mailbox.
Enjoy it while it lasts because a bill that has been introduced to the state Legislature could doom some small papers and their local photos, unique stories and even those wonderfully old-fashioned social columns.
HB 1135 is a bill to allow local governments to put their public notices online, on the Internet, rather than in local newspapers. This bill has been assigned to the House Local Government Committee and it could be debated in committee early next week. If passed, it will only require that local government minutes and proceedings — generally referred to as legals — be posted online, instead of in the county’s official legal newspaper.
There are so many things wrong with HB 1135 that it’s tough to simply pick one or two issues to rail about here today. Among them are, as always, transparency issues, worries about true public access and so on. In addition, many South Dakota newspapers already publish their legals on Web sites.
And it’s interesting that most of the lawmakers so far backing HB 1135 hail from the immediate Sioux Falls or Rapid City areas — 14 of 24, to be exact. Three more are from Pierre, Aberdeen and Huron. The only one who represents Daily Republic readers is Sen. Tom Hansen, R-Huron.
I worry about the effect this bill would have on the small-town newspaper. The owners of those papers are wary to talk about the financial sting that would be felt by HB 1135; they instead prefer to discuss the merits of true open government and such. The reality is that weekly papers will be pinched — perhaps punched — if legals are pulled from their regular budget.
It’s also true that the costs that cities, schools and counties pay for legals is just a fraction of their budget. I’ve been told that in some places, it’s only a fraction of 1 percent.
Gayle Van Genderen, co-owner of the South Dakota Mail in Plankinton, said it’s important to stress that public openness is the real issue here, and not the money that goes to the newspapers. She said publishing legals is “a valuable service that the government gets at a reasonable cost.”
“We have to get through to the Legislature what we really do. The role we play has to be shown,” she said.
Spend a few minutes discussing the subject with Van Genderen and it’s obvious she’s serious. She wants an opportunity to testify against the bill at the Capitol, but if that chance comes early in the week, she’ll have to decline.
She’s got a paper to publish, after all.
Van Genderen said that when the Plankinton school was destroyed by fire a few years back, the school district’s historic financial records went with it. It didn’t take long for the folks at the Mail to find copies of those records. Van Genderen is proud of such a relationship with a government entity.
It’s true the argument could be made that records in the future will be guaranteed by their placement on the Internet, but there’s no certainty in that.
Again, she and others in the industry insist those things should be published in newspapers so the public has a grasp of what its money is being spent on.
Yet small-town newspapers have a serious financial stake in this argument. They rely upon that money to make ends meet, and by making ends meet, they provide a public service to thousands upon thousands of South Dakota residents.
Simply put: If legals are no longer required to be published in South Dakota newspapers, that act alone erodes easy access to vital public information. It also could lead to the closure of many small-town newspapers, which in turn will erode even further the public’s right to know about, well, everything.
Some will disagree with me on this, but money should be an issue here, too, because my prediction is that if HB 1135 passes, some newspapers will close their doors forever. I hesitate to say many newspapers, but it’s possible.
Either way, that’s one less business on Main Street and a couple of people out of work — just what every small town doesn’t need.
Van Genderen and others in the industry aren’t asking for a handout. Again, when I spoke with her Thursday morning, she only discussed her many worries about HB 1135’s lack of transparency, checks and balances and so on. I first brought up the related finances and I was the one who asked if some small-town newspapers will die because of it.
She conceded that, indeed, some will.
“We are guardians,” Van Genderen said. “We are a very important safeguard for these notices, and we take that seriously.”More from around the web