Letter to the Editor: A dangerous consequence of the public notice bill: Iowans won’t know what they don’t know

To the Editor:

What separates average-to-good Iowa towns from thriving ones, former Governor Terry Branstad often said, is the presence of locally owned banks and a dedicated community newspaper. Community newspapers are a big part of what makes Iowa, well, Iowa.

And that’s why it’s so troubling that some in the Iowa Senate are considering requiring legal notices to be posted on some to-be-created state-run website and would not be required to be published in a local newspaper.

Senate File 546 would in practical terms eliminate an essential part of your newspaper, limiting the news, and in so doing, cripple many newspapers, many of which are already facing financial struggles.

In an age where reality is in rare supply and social media feeds ugliness and division, Iowa’s community newspapers serve as something of the last bastion of collective truth. Readers are close to the local news, so they either know stories to be true and accurate - or if in doubt they can easily find the reporters and owners.

Of Iowa’s 240 newspapers, 80 percent are privately owned. More than 100 Iowa newspapers have fewer than 1,000 subscribers. What these newspapers print is local, local, local. It’s stories on eight-man football, and City Council proceedings, celebrations of new business openings, and the solemn and sacred responsibility, what I always considered the soul of the newspaper, the timely and careful collection and publishing of obituaries.

The newspapers of Iowa are generally practical, not ideological. Most small-town newspaper owners are busy running from the Rotary meeting for a photo to the high school for a story and, later, to the council meetings. They have no time to weigh in with views on national and state government. Some do, yes. But the vast majority of papers keep it local.

A big part of newspapers: public notices. Local ones. Information on how your small town is spending money, what the schools and counties in your area are doing, are best presented in a newspaper, as the content is relevant and easily accessible.

Unlike the California-based social media Goliaths with deep tentacles into our lives, newspapers are responsible for their content. Facebook and Twitter are considered “platforms,” and are not liable for anything users post. We correct our mistakes in the newspaper business, and if the errors are damaging enough, aggrieved parties can seek remedies in Iowa’s District Courts. Ever try getting a correction on Facebook?

The most distressing unintended consequence of these detailed public records not being printed in your local newspaper will be more division in Iowa, and if you can imagine, an even-more ugly politics as fallen newspapers, and the people who care about community first, leave a content void that big-dollar donors from the coasts will be all-too-happy to fill with ideologically-oriented “news” sites - with writers who are more scalp hunters for Republicans and Democrats than reporters.

Many local newspapers, the sources Branstad always saw as central to economic and community development, are dutiful in running columns from their local legislators - mostly Republicans - in rural Iowa. The legislators can relate items of local interest, which is essential. In the absence of newspapers, which will be a result in many areas of Iowa of Senate File 546, the even-handed, trusted local folks at the paper will be quickly replaced by purveyors of political distortion.

Our state needs its community newspapers, and reliable, accessible public notices. Without them, Iowans won’t know what they don’t know.

Doug Burns,
former Vice President for News and Co-owner of Herald Publishing,