Numbers In: City $ to DNR

Jeremy Aldrich -- February 3rd, 2010

After a request for information, Harrisonburg Public Information Officer Miriam Dickler provided a list of recent city expenditures that have gone to the Daily News-Record.  The earliest expense listed is on July 15 of last year, and the most recent is January 20 of this year.  The total for this six-month period comes to $22,058.52.  Much of it is for required notices, while some is for advertising special events and programs.

Of course, this list does not include expenses by other local governments, state agencies, or institutions like JMU or BRCC.

According to the Augusta Free Press, Dels. Landes and Bell proposed similar bills which would have allowed local governments to choose to place legal notices in newspapers, on city public access channels, city websites, in local libraries, or to communicate them through voicemail or text-alert systems. However, their proposals were voted down in a subcommittee, partially due to pressure from newspaper lobbyists.

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36 Responses to “Numbers In: City $ to DNR”

  1. It also does not include any expenses by Harrisonburg City Schools. According to Dickler, the school division handles its own budget separately.

  2. Renee says:

    I just don’t understand why the government/city has to pay to place required notices if the paper is getting tax subsidies… aren’t we taxpayers double-paying for those public notices then? (And we still have to pay to get the paper to read them – triple-paying?)

  3. This also doesn’t include the cost of Public Notices placed by the private sector under regulatory or legal/court requirements. You are compelled to post/pay the DNR.

  4. Jason,

    1) $22k is a fraction of the total they get. This post came about in part because of the discussion you were a part of in another post. When was the last time that happened to you on the DNRonline? Apples and oranges, man.

    2) Where have we “ripped” on the DNR? Again, this post was born of a discussion that you participated in. Information is not “ripping.” The $22k is a fact, not an opinion.

    3) Of course hburgnews posts a fraction of the content that the DNR can create. Our operating budget is exactly $0.00 (but for the sake of argument, $22k could go a long way in a rag-tag blog like this if it were to go into a fund that would pay freelance reporters for original reports. But that’s not the point because . . .

    4) You’re making a connection in your mind that simply does not exist anywhere else. No one is saying, “give hburgnews that money instead of the DNR.” Bubby had previously suggested a site that would aggregate this content.

    5) How is “$22,000 is a drop in the bucket and not a large sum that some have said they receive?” I said it was in the tens of thousands, and it is. And besides, that’s only a fraction of the total. Or did you only read a fraction of the post and subsequent comments?

  5. Conflict of interest? How about the fact that we’ll never see this story reported in the newspaper? Nor any stories about Landes and Bell’s proposed bills.

  6. Deb SF says:

    Renee- what kind of subsidies to newspapers are you referring to? The fact that we don’t (or aren’t supposed to) pay sales tax on newspapers?

  7. Dave Briggman says:

    Your bloggers are so largely obtuse about the real world that I don’t believe Lohr’s violation of ethics laws over the repeated cash payments he and his wife have received for “motivational speeches” was even mentioned during the election here…

    Moreover, there’s been no mention of Lohr’s legislation to amend the very ethics statute he’s violated over the last number of years to LOWER the monetary threshold, which if in effect while he was receiving payments would have made him a felon, if charged and convicted.

    Of course, the DNR (Cort Kirkwood, Rob Longley, Jeff Mellott) had the amounts and copies of the checks written to the Lohrs…but no story every materialized.

    Too bad, the Dems had the better candidate for this seat, but Gene couldn’t even count on you guys to aid in attacking Lohr.

  8. Renee says:

    Deb, I don’t know the details but did a quick Google search and found this: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/davidwestphal/200911/1801/
    I thought it was common practice for newspapers to be subsidized in several ways.

    Jason, of course readers and writers of hburgnews, which provides an alternate outlet for local stories and discussion, likely got involved with this blog because they felt something was missing or bothersome about the local newspaper. I admit I have a lot of issues with the DNR, and it surprises me to find out how much taxpayer money they receive, but I am sure most newspapers have similar deals. So, in this case my issue is with newspapers in general receiving so much tax money from their readership without having to earn that money in the good-old-fashioned-competition kind of way. I think there should be other legal outlets for public announcements, too – it seems only fair in this multimedia age.

    Having said that, I don’t think Jeremy is “ripping” the newspaper, and he kept the article to fact-reporting, even though he is not paid to do so. I also don’t think anyone thinks hburgnews is a complete DNR-replacement (at least at this point! maybe in the future…).

    Also, you said “There are several people on here… that drag the DNR into the discussion because they don’t like the editorial content. ” – isn’t that a good thing to discuss about a newspaper, the content it chooses to publish? Isn’t that what you’re commenting on about hburgnews? This is an appropriate place to have the discussion.

    It’s important to discuss what organizations get government funding and why, especially when viable alternatives are available for what that organization gets paid for.

    Even if hburgnews got just a portion of that public-notice money, it could make a big difference. It doesn’t seem fair that only one news organization can get that public notice money, especially when the public is subsidizing them in several ways already.

    I think I lost track and kind of rambled on here, but I hope I’ve made an understandable point in there somewhere :)

  9. Deb SF says:

    Ah. Forgiving the sales tax (which allows rack sales), and he calls the public notice requirement a subsidy (I disagree). The postage issue has largely disappeared, as he notes. Thanks, Renee.

  10. Karl says:

    This issue came up at an VAAPB meeting several years ago while I was president. I was urged on behalf of the membership to lobby against a bill that would have ended required newspaper publication of legal notices for local governments. There was concern that the information would not be as readily available to the media.

    The notices themselves are very important, but very ineffective. I look for them everyday, but I’m in the minority. If you attend public hearings in the city or county people have usually found out about an issue one of two ways…they are an adjacent landowner and got a letter or the newspaper ran a preview story. I’m not sure that the public notices in the paper draw even 10-percent of those that come out for a specific issue.

    The notices need to be published somewhere, but I think uniformity and mass accessibility are key issues.

  11. Lowell Fulk says:

    What about requiring notices to be posted on the governmental body’s website on a “Public Notices” page the link to which is prominently highlighted on the home page? Then any citizen or responsible news reporting agency could easily find the information.

    I agree with Karl in questioning the percentage who attend public hearings due to the notices published in the paper. Any paper.

  12. Karl says:

    I’m not sure that internet alone is good enough Lowell. While folks that come to this blog see it as a very logical and simple move, we still live in an area where those without home internet connections are significant enough to worry about.

    We could always go back to tacking them up on the boards at the courthouse :)

    Miriam may not want to state an opinion on this matter, but I think it would certainly be worthwhile to hear if the city has one (an opinion).

  13. Jeff says:

    I’m all for alternate means of posting legal notices but the problem is a number of laws and processes will have to change. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, lawsuits, some government proceedings, etc… all can or do require proper publication and service, which in many cases includes newspaper of record notices. So it’s a little tougher than just switching to web. (Not that I’m a lawyer.)

    I don’t begrudge the DNR the revenue. They’re simply serving a need. The DNR gets the revenue because they became the newspaper of record. It’s a little like begrudging Nielsen Construction for winning lots of JMU construction contracts. JMU wants/needs new buildings, Nielsen provides them. Local governments and citizens are required to post legal notices, the DNR provides the platform. While Nielsen has to bid for their projects and the DNR doesn’t bid on legal notice publication, they get that work because they either found or put themselves in a position to operate without legally-recognized competition. So hey, in a business sense good for them.

    I know it’s not apples to apples… but it kinda is.

  14. seth says:

    i’d still be interested to know what fraction of total ad revenues that $22k was in the alotted period of time (i feel like it would help give some perspective on how large that figure actually is or isn’t).

  15. Emmy says:

    The DNR does serve a need. As long as people buy it, then it serves a need and they can continue to do what they like. Personally, I purchase it on Saturday for the coupons, and recycle the rest without ever looking at it. I don’t find the paper at all useful or informative and I’m not shy about saying it needs a serious overhaul. That’s simply my opinion and no one else has to share it.

    Between the internet and WSVA I get the information I need, often before the paper ever has it.

  16. Dany Fleming says:

    It seems to me that Karl’s points are particularly valuable. Are newspapers the best, better or even a good outlet for public notices? Does their actual reach justify the expense?

    The public notices requirements, in effect, provide an unchallenged “entitlement” to newspapers. That “entitlement” does not seem to require that they provide notices to any level of effectiveness or to modernize or improve that service. The newspaper lobby (VPA) then knocked down an effort to seemingly increase the effectiveness. As far as I can tell, the VPA’s strong-arm message was, “we’re just better and prepare for the consequences if you change the requirements.” There debate didn’t seem to have any real assessment or comparison of reach.

    That’s certainly an ironic and hypocritical stance for those newspapers that rail against “special interest” influencing of our legislature.

    I don’t know of any posting method guaranteed to reach everyone. It’s certainly true that the Internet doesn’t reach everywhere. However, I have to think there are more people with access to the web than reading newspapers. By using the Harrisonburg and DNR #’s, there has to be $$ millions given to newspapers statewide for public notices. That’s probably why they lobbied so hard.

    That same money could be used to build and maintain a state or regional posting system, it seems to me. After the initial build, the yearly maintenance could be a fraction of the cost and much more user-friendly.

  17. Karl says:

    Jeff, I understand your Gala to Fuji comparison and basically agree.

    It’s the public notices themselves that are the problem, not the paper. An actual story in the DNR can and has driven people to a meeting. I don’t think the same can be said for the public notices. I’m a headline reader by nature and read stories where the headline has grabbed my attention. I think many folks are the same way and wouldn’t even take a first glance at a public notice. I think the persentation of newspapers on the internet makes things like public notices even more overlooked.

    Basically the paper as a vehicle for the information is still viable, but not in public notice form. Does that make sense?

  18. Scott Rogers says:

    It would seem that an online, searchable, categorized database of public notices with an RSS feed could be much more effective at allowing people to know about issues and changes that affect them. It could take a while for people to commonly know where to go (online) to find that resource — but I don’t think people ever really look at public notices in the newspaper.

  19. Dany Fleming says:

    I agree, Scott. Maybe a public notice could be placed in the newspaper announcing the new public notice posting area!!

    Karl, your point seems to suggest that either papers turn public notices into a headlined story or the public notice is necessarily ineffective. That’s certainly not viable for papers. So, alternative options aside, that seems to suggest that papers are not a good vehicle for notices; that the requirement is out-dated.

    I’m also not convinced that online presentations make public notices more overlooked. It seems just the opposite to me. Online indexing, searching, linking, etc. makes finding information easier online. Hyper-linking exponentially increases the ability to provide more information on a notice for anyone interested.

    If, as you say, people just by-pass public notices in the paper, then why would it matter if they are overlooked online more or less? That seems to place no responsibility on the reader. If notices are really only for those folks looking for them, then I’d still argue that online has more reach and utility.

  20. Scott Rogers says:

    Dany: I think Karl’s point was that was not that online public notices are overlooked, but that public notices in online newspapers are overlooked. I would agree with him — it’s even less likely that an online newspaper reader is going to find and consume the public notices. I would agree with him.

    Does anyone know of any localities in Virginia that have an online searchable system of public notices?

  21. Scott Rogers says:

    Though not easy to find, if you go to the Daily Progress web site (Charlottesville), and then to Classifieds, and then to Legal Notices, you’ll find yourself on Oodle….

    http://dailyprogress.oodle.com/community/announcements/legal/

    I’m not sure what the data sources are — only 3 results show up when you search for “trustee”.

  22. Karl says:

    I wasn’t saying that the public notices need to become stories. What I tried to say (not very well) was that the newspaper isn’t the problem. People still read it, just not the public notices. Unlike certain magazines, I do actually read the DNR for the articles.

  23. Renee says:

    How many public notices are there in a typical week? Would it be financially viable to mail out notices to people that request them?

    What I mean is, if the main outlet for notices was a public website with an RSS feed, and printouts of the notices were posted in a public location weekly, and that still was’t considered accessible enough for people that are homebound and without internet, could a weekly newsletter be mailed to those few households that requested it? I’m assuming it wouldn’t be too bulky a document if all of the notices fit into a small section of the paper each day. I think that would still probably cost less to the government than the amount paid to run newspaper ads, and the vast majority of people could get them online.

    A searchable database makes them even more useful and likely to be seen because instead of scanning through a paper regularly for notices that pertain to you, you could just subscribe to an RSS feed that shows you only the ones you are interested in.

    P.S. If you all ever hear of a database/website for public notices being contracted out by the government, please let me know – my small business would likely bid on the contract, as that type of database system is my expertise! :)

  24. Renee says:

    “That same money could be used to build and maintain a state or regional posting system, it seems to me. After the initial build, the yearly maintenance could be a fraction of the cost and much more user-friendly.” – you are correct, Dany.

  25. Renee says:

    Also, are the DNR public notices one of the things that isn’t behind the pay wall? If not, it should be…
    Funny, I’m not sure where to look for these notices on their website.

  26. JGFitzgerald says:

    Renee: Click “legals” under the “classified” tab at the top of the DNR page. I got there without logging in.

  27. Dany Fleming says:

    As Joe points out, public notices are available on the DNR and you can sign-up to have them queried and e-mailed to you. Though, it appears the listing also includes ads.

    There is a site called vapublicnotices.com (a publishing company site) which is making a very unsophisticated attempt to collect notices statewide. It has few participants at this point, but it is similar to a number of publishing efforts in other southern states.

    This is no small issue for newspaper publishers all across the south. There are similar legislative battles taking place in almost every state from VA to Texas and the publishers are pushing back with full force. Many of those states have old, family-owned operations similar to Rockingham Publishing.

    The laws have already been modified in many other states across the country.

    Newspapers were given the public notice duty originally because they were the main source for news and seen to be a trusted, independent source. The former has certainly changed and the latter….well, there’s a range of opinions about that. Regardless, on this issue, newspapers are a special interest fighting for their entitlement.

    I have no problem with newspapers competing for the service. Most papers have been calling for transparency, competition, fairness, accountability and prudent use of taxpayer dollars in the “public interest.” Newspapers are a business – I wonder if they will be playing by those same rules when it comes to their turn at the public trough?

  28. Dany Fleming says:

    Renee – Global Notice, Inc is a group trying to do what you suggest. I don’t know if they’ve been successful – but they appear to be public enemy number one for many publisher lobbying efforts.

  29. Some more info:
    – Sniffing around the DNR classified section, I saw that about 1/4 1/3 of the legal notices were listed under the section “Circuit Court of Rockingham”, so I contacted Clerk of the Circuit Court Chaz Evans-Haywood, who is always extremely helpful and responsive. He informed me that no money passes through his office for those ads and that the individuals required to place them pay for them directly. So I took the suggested format for trustee sales from the state code and ran it through the DNR’s “Place a Classified Ad” part of their website. The text (which is smaller than most actual trustee sales announcements because none of the blanks were filled in) would have cost between $126.88-$143.50 to print for one day (depending on the size of the headline and whether a border was added). In the last week, 48 legal notices were posted on the DNR site. Assuming they were all approximately the length I tried, and each run for one day at the cheapest price I was quoted, that would mean the DNR made a little more than $6,000 in the last week from legal notices. In reality, I expect the DNR actually charged quite a bit more because most of the notices online were longer than the text I input, and had headlines and borders. I have no idea if this was an average week or not but if it was, the DNR makes at least $312,000 annually from legal notices.

    – Virginia Press Association has 2 employees registered as lobbyists and 2 other lobbyists on retainer in Richmond.

    – As has been mentioned, this is not just a local or state issue. Two other interesting recent posts on this topic: Should the government be spending tax dollars printing tiny type in newspapers? The arguments in favor and Free Market Newspapers Fighting for Government Subsidies.

  30. Lowell Fulk says:

    Karl,

    My last year on the school board was 2003. The division had been considering a program to solicit businesses to donate their old computers as they upgraded their offices to provide technology to folks who couldn’t afford it on their own, in order to help raise the level of technology education for our county students. Our excellent technology team conducted a survey of all high school students to determine need, and an amazing realization came to be… Over 90% of households with high school students had a computer. In 2003!

    I realize that we can’t expect the same from the entire population, but I would submit that if someone is interested in attending public hearings dealing with public business, that they will find a way to be informed, and I agree as well that a story about the public hearing will generate more interest than a little small fonted ad in the midst of scores of similarly sized and packaged ads.

  31. Joe Ebslap says:

    I find this thread very interesting reading. The Daily News Record has been labeled offensive in my book ever since the headline “Primate Obama” was printed. Hee Hee Haw Haw Say No More Say No More Wink Wink Nudge Nudge Say No More. I refuse to give them a penny (I used to place classified and display ads) to the point of boycotting so they won’t get my clicks to lure ad revenue. Now you are telling me that I am still giving them revenue through my tax dollars.

  32. Karl says:

    Governments are required to post the public notices, but I don’t think that’s the case with the Trustee Sales.

  33. Karl, people are required to post trustee sales in the newspaper. It’s a de facto tax, but it goes to the newspapers instead of the state government!

  34. Karl says:

    Thanks for the info Jeremy. I thought they only had to post it at the courthouse.

  35. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    One more update…the law says trustee sales must run for three days. Using the same dummy text on the “place a classified ad” section as before, a 3-day placement costs between $324.71-$369.60.

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