Editorial: More threats to newspapers, readers

Devoted Disney fans may know that in the original “Bambi” movie, a mistake slipped onto the big screen.

(There were a number of “mistakes,” but this one stands out.) In the original version of the film, following the great fire scene, a raccoon drags her baby to shore and begins cleaning it. A few seconds later the baby has jumped across to the other side of his father and siblings, but the mother does not stop licking.


That glitch has been fixed in more current releases of the film, which outrages the purist fandom.

So why are we mentioning this in an editorial? Because in Oregon, as well as other states in the nation, there are movements that could easily open the door to fixing “mistakes” in something more important – sorry, Disney fans – to us as citizens of this state.

Allow us to explain.

You may be familiar with public notices, those announcements of public processes and activities that are published in newspapers regularly. Public notices serve a number of purposes.

— They alert the public about government activities, such as public hearings, on issues that local citizens might want to weigh in on.

— They provide businesses with the opportunity to participate in the operations of government, such as bidding to provide services or goods; these can also provide government officials with choices that can lower costs and provide better services for the public.

— Required legal announcements inform the public about probate proceedings following a death, about auctions of seized materials by public agencies, about storage unit sales, etc.

What’s key in all of this is that these announcements are in writing, printed on a page, and says exactly what they say. More on that in a moment.

Public notices have been published in local newspapers since, really, newspapers appeared in society in Britain and the Americas in the 1600s.

Government agencies and bodies at all levels are required to publish announcements of the meetings, budgets, bids, of which the public is entitled to know, in a place they can find it, and which guarantees that what you, the citizen, see is exactly what has been submitted by the agency, or the lawyer’s office, or the storage unit management office.

That guarantee is critical and that’s why public notices have for centuries been published by newspapers, which are readily accessible independent parties that archive their publications and verify, via notarization, that what the reader sees is what the newspaper was authorized to publish.

If any one of these elements is absent, the public loses and the notice itself may be challenged.

As mentioned above, there are moves across the nation to change this process. After all, we live in a digital age now, in which we’re smarter than those who’ve gone before us.

The state of Florida passed a law that went into effect this year giving governmental agencies the option to publish legal notices on the publicly accessible website of the county in which the agency is located, instead of in a printed newspaper or on a newspaper’s website if doing so would cost less than publishing legal notices in a newspaper.

Think about that. What’s to stop an official from deciding he or she doesn’t like what that announcement says, and making changes to it? After all, it certainly isn’t written in stone. Not any more.

This year Oregon’s legislators are considering multiple bills, one – HB 3167, which seeks to strengthen the publication of public notices in newspapers, while another, HB 3392 would allow notice to be listed on any website.

Still another, SB 862, seeks to remove the requirement that public storage companies post in newspapers notices of their sales of locker contents due to delinquent payments.

In other words, while the first of these bills seeks to ensure the public notice process continues in our state as it has, the others go the opposite direction.

Given the often topsy-turvy nature of the legislative process, with thousands of bills competing for legislators’ attention, and bills being scheduled suddenly for hearings that interested parties sometimes can’t get to, Oregonians should be concerned about where this is going.

There’s another element here that needs full disclosure: Public notices do provide revenue for newspapers, including this one, which are already bleeding from the proverbial “thousand cuts.”

In the end, a radical change to how public notices happen will create not only another financial hit for local newspapers, but a loss for their readers.

The point of public notice is to make accurate, verified, information available to citizens. “Bambi” isn’t happening here. Now, when anything goes awry in the publication of a public notice, the newspaper takes the fall.

So let’s really bring this to the ground level.

Let’s say you enjoy taking your chances at storage locker auctions, bidding for what’s behind the locked doors of the unit somebody didn’t pay the rent on. Somebody on a website somewhere changes some details of the initial announcement. You miss out on that opportunity you were counting on.

Or let’s say you live in a neighborhood where a developer wants to put in a 30-home subdivision, right down the street in which your kids ride bikes and chase balls. There’s a public hearing scheduled for this. Do you want to be there? Well, sorry, a clerk got the date on the initial announcement wrong and the meeting got moved up. You’re welcome to write a letter.

The reliable, independent role played by newspapers for centuries cannot be matched by websites, private or public, that might simply post those notices – no matter what Florida legislators seem to think. Sooner or later, we predict, that free-wheeling approach to public notices will come back to bite somebody.

Local newspapers provide information not found anywhere else in Oregon. They inform readers of what’s going on in the communities and they build bonds between community members. And for centuries they have done a stellar job of publishing important public notices their community members need and deserve.

If it ain’t broke, it doesn’t need to be fixed.