The right to know

Published 11:33 am Saturday, November 1, 2014

I get that it is easy for people to dislike the media today. I really do. Even as the publisher of a newspaper I understand why people dislike the media. Heck, I don’t even like a majority of the media, and I’m a part of it.

I think the reason that so many, including myself, generally hold the media in such low regard is that there are outlets today who attempt to pass themselves off as news-gathering organizations who are merely making a profit off of broadcasting or publishing pop culture garbage that the average person doesn’t care about. (See Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.) True news-gathering organizations, like The Tidewater News and others, are often believed to reside in the cesspool with the TMZs and the National Enquirers of the world. Even though (we hope) that isn’t true, we’re often found guilty by association.

But like us or not, the media — especially respectable media outlets — still play an incredibly important role in today’s society, perhaps none more so than the role we play in holding our governments accountable.

Disagree? Then ask yourself this question: Do I trust government to do what’s in my best interest if they think I’m not looking? If you answered no, then you understand why respectable media outlets are still such an important part of our society. If you answered yes, well, bless your heart, but I can’t help you.

One of the many ways that the media, and specifically newspapers, hold the government accountable is through the publication of legal notices. Legal notices advertise such things as public hearings, rezoning requests and applications for liquor licenses. Governments are required to publish legal notices in a newspaper with general circulation because it has long been proven that newspapers are the single most effective way to disseminate information to the largest number of people. Opponents of public notice requirements, primarily local governments, have tried for years to change the rules. Their primary argument is that legal notices cost governments money that could otherwise be spent elsewhere. Their proposed alternative is to publish on the government websites.

But here are the facts as revealed by a recent study of the National Newspaper Association: 81 percent of survey respondents read a local newspaper on a weekly basis; approximately 75 percent read public notices published in their local newspapers; and 66 percent had never visited a local government website. In other words, a significantly smaller number of people would be informed about the actions of their local government if it was no longer required to publish legal notices in the local newspaper.

And that is exactly what has been taking place in Isle of Wight County for the past four months.

Isle of Wight’s county attorney, Mark Popovich, decided that as of July 1 public notices for the county’s board of supervisors would only be published in The Daily Press, which is based in Newport News. Prior to his decision, legal notices that affected southern Isle of Wight were published in The Tidewater News, notices effecting the northern portion of the county were placed in The Smithfield Times, and all notices were sent to The Daily Press. Popovich claimed that by not publishing legal notices in The Tidewater News and The Smithfield Times, the county would save money and still meet legal notice requirements.

But there are a couple of flaws in his theory, chiefly that legal notices in The Daily Press cost more than in the other two newspapers combined, and The Daily Press has no circulation in the southern half of Isle of Wight County. If his true motivation was to save the county money and meet notice requirements, he could have simply discontinued advertising in The Daily Press. Instead, he is reaching fewer citizens and spending more of the county’s money by eliminating local newspapers.

His actions, quite frankly, do not pass the smell test.

Based on comments made by some members of the board of supervisors who, by the way, were not informed of Popovich’s actions until this past week, the matter is likely to be taken up at the next board meeting. We hope that legal notices will begin running again in The Tidewater News shortly thereafter.

For the cynical at heart, legal notices do generate revenue for newspapers, although a mere fraction of what is generated by the other types of advertising we print. The real issue at hand is a citizen’s right to know what his or her local government is up to. I for one can’t imagine living in a society in which a government’s actions go completely unchecked. Due in large part to respectable media outlets and legal notice requirements, we won’t have to.

TONY CLARK is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either or 562-3187.