Alaska newspaper publishers worry about bill ending some public notice requirements

the Alaska Senate
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is seen before the start of a session of the Alaska Senate on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Senate voted without dissent Monday to allow the Department of Natural Resources to stop publishing some public notices in local newspapers.

Senators approved Senate Bill 68 by a 17-0 vote. It now advances to the House for consideration. Sens. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; and Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, were excused absent.

Before the final vote, newspaper publishers unsuccessfully asked legislators to reconsider their plans. Allowing the state to control its public notice process poses transparency risks, they testified, and it likely will harm papers’ finances, potentially reducing the amount of independent reporting available in Alaska.

“Newspapers certainly are concerned that not everyone has internet coverage, and it’s going to just further depress the finances of a money-losing business that’s important to communities,” said Larry Persily, owner and publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel.

“Public notices are one of the few remaining revenue streams we have left,” he said.

SB 68 addresses only a fraction of the notices required, by state law, to appear in local newspapers, and it doesn’t affect notices published by local cities and boroughs, most of whom still require newspaper publication as well.

The bill only applies to “public notices relating to the sale, appropriation, or removal of water,” commonly required of mining projects.

Persily said he nonetheless thinks it’s the sign of a national trend reaching Alaska.

“I’m actually surprised it took this long,” he said.

States are moving away from mandatory print publication, with some requiring publication on a newspaper website instead. Florida, for example, implemented a law this year that allows a local government to publish notices on a public website instead of through a newspaper.

In the United States, mandatory publication dates to the first Congress, in 1789, and the practice has continued as a way to keep the public informed.

Speaking to the Senate on Monday, Giessel said that newspaper readership has declined and that internet access has become common in Alaska. 

Requiring only online publication — with print publication as an optional backup — isn’t a barrier to access, she said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said after the vote that getting rid of the public notice newspaper requirement isn’t a new idea, but he opposed it the last time it came around because he didn’t believe his district had appropriate internet access.

Now, following the advance of technology, he believes it does, and he voted for the bill.

Virginia Farmer, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and Ryan Binkley, owner and president of Anchorage Daily News, were among those who testified against it, mostly on transparency grounds.

“The public has relied on community newspapers to keep them informed and to publish public notices. If the state government publishes their own notices, where’s the transparency in that?” Farmer wrote in a letter to Giessel.

Binkley, who wrote a separate letter, said by phone that he’s surprised the Senate was willing to give the executive branch more power over public notice requirements.

“That’s a lot of power for the executive branch to hold. I’m surprised the Legislature wants to continue to consolidate power,” he said. 

He also said he was skeptical of claims by state agencies that publishing their own notices will have no cost.

“Anybody who runs a business knows that a website isn’t free,” he said.

Binkley said that if legislators are concerned about the cost of print notices, they might consider changing the law to require publication on newspaper websites instead.

“If the goal is for people to see those notices and be able to find them as easily as possible,” he said, “use the website with the highest amount of traffic in the state. If you want eyeballs on notices, if you want them easily findable, there’s no better place than or the local paper in any community.”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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