TAR HEEL VIEW: Cooper should veto Wade’s bill to hide notices from public

The doomsday prediction wasn’t scrawled on a cardboard sign, but printed in bold black ink at the top of the newspaper page.

“Trudy Wade’s Bill Will Close Jamestown News,” it warns, adding in all-capital letters, “Governor’s Veto is Our Last Hope.”

The weekly newspaper in Jamestown, a 3,600-population hamlet in Guilford County, is fighting for its life. A bill passed moments before midnight June 28 will allow Guilford governments to post public notices on their own websites instead of advertising them in local newspapers unless Gov. Roy Cooper applies his veto stamp.

Wade, R-Guilford, first tried to strip notices away from newspapers in all 100 North Carolina counties through Senate Bill 343. She convinced her chamber to go along with the shortsighted measure, but it faced an uphill climb in the House.

Wade compromised to allow self-publication in four counties — Buncombe, Durham, Forsyth and Guilford. The House Finance Committee voted SB 343 down, but Wade, motivated by a well-publicized grudge against the Greensboro News & Record, was undeterred.

She amended House Bill 205, an act to extend workers’ compensation benefits to certain inmates, and inserted provisions to take public notices out of Guilford County papers and eliminate the requirement that newspapers obtain postal permits in each county where they accept legal advertising.

The new vehicle for Wade’s vendetta passed the House 60-53 and is awaiting its fate on Cooper’s desk.

To punish the News & Record for critical coverage, Wade wants to pinch local papers in the pocketbook. But public notice advertising was never a wink-and-nod government subsidy. It’s payment for services rendered, and the service is informing local residents about special meetings, land transfers, contract bids and impending foreclosures.

Cities and counties can’t match newspapers’ audience online, and posting notices on little-used government websites would leave those without internet access — poor, elderly and rural residents — out in the cold.

Those in charge of verification say there’s no established way to track online-only public notices, leaving thorny legal questions unanswered.

“What we have now works,” Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court Susan Frye told House Finance Committee members. Wade’s bill “will put a lot of people out of business, but as far as the clerks, speaking on behalf of them, it will add a lot more to our plate.”

Newspapers make money from public notice advertising for the same reason businesses choose to advertise in local papers — it works. Advertising isn’t a form of corporate charity, it’s a way to reach exponentially more people than a business or local government could on its own.

Wade’s bill puts small newspapers and the community journalism they produce in jeopardy. If the Jamestown News folds, the town government will lose its independent watchdog and heartwarming human-interest stories will go untold.

We call on Governor Cooper to reject Wade’s petty, spite-fueled politics and veto her bid to hide public notices from the citizens she was elected to serve.

— The Wilson Times