RALEIGH — Bills filed in the N.C. House and Senate would preserve the requirement that governments publish legal notices in newspapers, a step press advocates are hailing as a victory for the general public.
"It's an important piece of revenue for the current newspaper industry operation, but a public service is provided," said John Bussian, a N.C. Press Association (NCPA) lawyer.
The House and Senate bills are modeled after a compromise that emerged from the Florida Legislature in 2012. Legal notices would continue to run in a newspaper of general circulation, but they would also need to be published to the paper's website and then to a NCPA website that would carry notices from across the state.
The Senate version of the bill passed its first reading last week and was referred to the body's rules committee. The concurrent House bill, H.B. 572, was filed Wednesday.
"I call it the best of both worlds," one of the bill's primary sponsors, Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Burlington, said Wednesday. He added H.B. 572 allows newspapers to continue to move into the internet era while also preserving their traditional role as the home of public notices.
The bills have been entered into the General Assembly at the same time another bill — H.B. 432 or S.B. 343 — is working its way through the legislature. That effort would require governments only to publish legal notices to their websites, with the savings meant to be used in part to fund teacher supplements.
Bussian believes approval of that bill would result in very few governments choosing to continue publishing in newspapers -- likely harming the public's right to know.
"You have the question of should the government be entrusted with getting out their own message? Or is it a bit of the fox guarding the hen house?" Bussian said.
In 2015, Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, filed an identical bill to H.B. 572 that nearly unanimously passed the House before failing to gain traction in the Senate. Malone is a sponsor on this year's effort along with Ross and Reps. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, and Ken Goodman, D-Rockingham.
Mike Distelhorst, the publisher for Gatehouse Media's North Carolina Coastal Group, said the bill is important because it preserves citizens' right to know.
"Providing the public access to legal notices in newspapers is fundamental in serving the public's right to know what government is doing," he said. "At the grass root level, published legal notices allow local residents to be made aware of hearings and meetings that could have major impact on their community."
Distelhorst oversees the Jacksonville Daily News, Kinston Free Press, New Bern Sun Journal and Wilmington StarNews.
Goodman said many residents in his district don't have access to the internet, instead depending on newspapers to follow their community's goings on.
"Newspapers not only are a component of people's right to know," he said, "but in communities like mine, they are very much part of the social fabric."
Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@StarNewsOnline.com.