Bill could pave way for online news outlets to publish legally-required public notices

Published 10:32 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

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By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern

Without a daily or weekly printed newspaper of record in Northern Kentucky, local leaders are seeking a way to get public notices out to readers digitally.

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The House Local Government Committee on March 3 gave its favor to House Bill 534, which would create qualifications for a digital news publication to be considered a paper of record. If passed, it paves the way for an online news outlet with a print publication to publish public notices daily on its website.

State law requires local governments and  agencies to advertise notices of public meetings, calls for proposals on upcoming projects and other government business in a local newspaper. These “legal ads” are a source of revenue for the publications. The bill would create criteria for counties with more than 80,000 residents to have notices published online if a digital publication meets the law’s requirements.

Lacy Starling, the president of for-profit online news outlet LINK nky, said the bill would allow the outlet to publish public notices on its website, as it also maintains a weekly print publication, the LINK Reader, both of which focus on reporting in Northern Kentucky.

Gannett closed weekly newspapers last year in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. Starling said that left the area with no paper of record.

In meetings with local government officials as well as some non-governmental organizations that must post public notices, Starling said it became clear that waiting for LINK’s weekly print edition imposed an inconvenient delay on some. She said it was important to preserve a way for print publications to still publish legal notices while creating guidelines for online outlets.

“For us, it was really important from the press’ perspective. We want to maintain transparency.”

The bill would allow local governments to publish a legal advertisement with an online publication if the notice can be viewed in full on the website.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephanie Dietz, R-Edgewood, said the bill stems from the lack of a paper of record within Northern Kentucky for some time. She believes it will pass the House.

“I think it’s an important first step and it means a lot to northern Kentucky,” Dietz said.

When presenting the bill, the representative was joined by Starling, Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore and Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Cooper.

David Thompson, the executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, said most of the KPA board is supportive of the committee substitute version of the bill. With the population limit, the bill will likely only affect Northern Kentucky counties, but 10 counties in the state have more than 80,000 residents.

KPA has opposed allowing government agencies to satisfy legal requirements by posting public notices online via their own sites or third-party websites since 2005 “because they pretty much control what is published, where it’s published and how it is published,” Thompson said.

“We have argued all along there’s got to be an independent third party associated with this. And newspapers, for more than a hundred years, have been that independent third party.”

Provisions in the bill could make it easier for online publications to begin, Starling said. Starting a new print publication can be costly. Dietz too said the bill opens the way for future online publications.

“I think that in communities where their print publication has disappeared, this provides an opportunity for the community to have a paper of record,” Starling said.

Thompson said that the committee substitute version of the bill could support the start of new print publications in some counties.

The bill has been given two readings on the House floor and might get a vote soon.

The bill’s proposed qualifications for a digital newspaper to be considered a paper of record include:

• An “active news gathering office in the publication area.”

• Actively publishing for at least a year and be updated at least weekly.

• On its landing page, have visible links or headings to direct users to public notices.

• Can be easily found through internet search engines or other search means.

• Primarily reports on matters of importance to the public with regular reporting on local and community issues.

• Is connected to another entity that distributes newspapers or is capable of circulating printed newspapers in its region.