A contributed perspectives piece by Randy Arrington
Editor’s Note: Randy Arrington is the founder and publisher of Page Valley News, a local news website covering Page County. This article was originally published there. It has been edited very slightly for republication for a Harrisonburg audience.
Please consider contacting state legislators to support SB1237, introduced by Harrisonburg’s Sen. Mark Obenshain (R). This bill would allow Public Notices to be published by online news sites, instead of mandating printed newspapers as the only outlet for them.
Although various bills have been presented in recent years that have yet to make it beyond committee consideration, the time has come for members of the General Assembly to seriously consider the rapidly growing segment of the media industry that includes online news agencies to be at least on par with the quickly diminishing segment of the media industry represented by printed newspapers.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband availability has been a hot topic that has drawn a great deal of discussion and billions invested in infrastructure at the federal and state level. Much like the electrification of the countryside in the 1930s, rural, underserved areas have been the focus of providing high-speed internet services to support everything from remote learning and telehealth services, to a higher demand for online business functions and the ability to telecommute and work from home.
Even in our small, rural county of Page — bordered by the Blue Ridge mountains to the east and the Massanutten mountain range to the west, with plenty of hollers in between — participation in one of the several multi-million-dollar regional broadband projects across Virginia will bring high-speed internet access to the doorstep of more than 95 percent of the underserved in Page County within the next year. Between the fiber optic cable being laid in the ground and the abundance of smart phones in the hands of residents, the argument that citizens don’t have access to the internet no longer holds water in terms of the publication of Public Notices.
The Code of Virginia (8.01-324) requires that Public Notices — such as a government agency’s request for bids on a project, notice of public hearings, trustee sales, divorces and other legal notices — be published in a print newspaper in the community in which the notice is being published. Under the terms described in the state law, weekly newspapers with circulations of only a few hundred papers would qualify to publish Public Notices, while online news sites with readerships of more than 100,000 users per month would not qualify.
Virginia’s 26th District Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) has filed SB1237 — an amendment to state code 8.01-324 — to address the unfair state mandate that excludes growing online news sites from publishing Public Notices and creates a monopoly for that state-mandated revenue stream for declining newspapers. We believe Senator Obenshain’s bill deserves support from local government officials, state agencies and citizens alike for these key reasons:
• AWARENESS — Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than 2,500 newspapers, a quarter of its total. During that same time, online news services have been created to fill voids left by the fleeting print media industry and to avoid the creation of “news deserts”, especially in rural areas. Nearly every newspaper being printed has a higher readership online than it does in print. By the inclusion of online news sites in the publication of Public Notices, it only serves to increase the audience and public awareness of these notices.
• FINANCIAL SAVINGS — SB1237 simply offers local government agencies who are required to publish Public Notices another option for publication. In many cases, online options would provide savings — potentially into the thousands of dollars — from their current advertising budget. In addition, this situation will be heightened in areas where small weekly newspapers are eventually closed and the nearest print newspaper is potentially a daily up to 50 miles away and the cost for advertising Public Notices will be increased dramatically to reach an even smaller local audience.
• FAIRNESS — As mentioned earlier, state law should not exclude one business from an opportunity within a given industry, while simultaneously mandating a monopoly for its competitor. As the state code currently stands, print newspapers maintain a monopoly over the publication of Public Notices, while online news sites are excluded by law. Newspapers are being rewarded for providing less public exposure.
This amendment does not take anything away from print newspapers, it simply offers local government officials an additional option. SB1237 also does not swing the pendulum all the way to the other side of the argument, which would allow government agencies to bypass third-party media outlets altogether. We agree with Richard Karpel, Executive Director of the Public Notice Resource Center, an organization that tracks the status of legal notices in all 50 states, when he told the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University: “I don’t think the concept of legal notices is controversial. There needs to be a nonpartisan way to officially announce what the government is doing. What’s controversial is how it happens…”
The amendment includes a list of criteria that online news sites must meet in order to qualify for publishing Public Notices, just as it does for print newspapers.
Times change, and it’s well past time for this law to be amended to reflect the changes in the media industry. Please consider taking 10 minutes out of your day to send a short email to, or call, the members of the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee, and strongly encourage them to send SB1237 forward for a full vote on the Senate floor.
Editor’s Note: Andrew Jenner, co-publisher of The Citizen, has contacted all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asking for their support of this measure.