Did you catch the recent notice about school choice in Wellesley? Or the one about the Department of Public Works’ hearing on water rates? What about the Historical Commission’s upcoming hearing on a batch of properties being considered for tear downs?
Such notices were dutifully published by town entities in the back of a print newspaper to comply with state law as well as on the town’s website. But did you notice these notices?
Legal notices like these are formal announcements that governmental bodies are required to let the public know about. An outdated and opaque state law requires that these be published in print newspapers (and their online versions).
This unfortunately leaves out online-only publications like ours. We’re not going to make a killing on legal notices, but for a small operation like ours, or the many other emerging independent online news sites, every dollar counts. More importantly, we think there’s a better chance of more people seeing the information if they’re published on online news sites.
We reached out to State Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch’s office about this issue a couple of years ago. We’re thankful that she filed a bill last year that would amend the existing law to address this shortcoming. Supporters in the legislature include Ken Gordon, Massachusetts State Representative for 21st Middlesex District.
Section 13 of chapter 4 of the General Laws, as so appearing, is hereby amended by inserting at the end thereof the following paragraph:-
(e) A municipality required by a statute, ordinance, by-law or judicial order to publish a legal notice in a newspaper or newspaper of general circulation may also publish the legal notice on a community news website. For purposes of this paragraph, “community news website” shall mean a website substantially all of which is dedicated to local news coverage for the relevant municipality and surrounding municipalities that receives an average of not less than 1,500 unique visits per month. This requirement shall not apply to a municipality for which a community news website does not exist.
The bill was sent to study, and there’s some renewed interest in House leadership to act on this issue, according to Peisch’s office.
The bill received support from outside organizations, including the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Please support Amendment #319, filed by Rep. Peisch, which would allow municipalities required to publish legal notices to post such notices on a community news website. This would address the challenge of meeting the legal notice requirement with fewer local news publications,” wrote Geoffrey Beckwith, Executive Director & CEO of the MMA.
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a media watcher, wrote recently about this issue in a piece titled “Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets.”
He raises the point that governments could push to just publish legal notices on their own sites, but this approach invites possible issues. “If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?”
We’re thankful that the Town of Wellesley has started to pay to publish some legal notices in Swellesley. We’ve always run some of this information anyway if we deem it newsworthy. We’d be happy to set up a go-to section on our site to consolidate such notices, and look forward to seeing whether the state moves forward on making it more palatable for communities to consider such options to get the word out on important matters.