Knox County wants to move its legal notices online — and, seemingly, away from the News Sentinel.
by jesse fox mayshark • May 18, 2021
UPDATE 1:30 p.m. 5/18: With some updated invoice information in the 5th paragraph, increasing the amount paid to the Knoxville Focus by about $1,400.
An ordinance change up for a vote by Knox County Commission this month would set up a new website to hold all the county’s required legal notices — and would eliminate the Knoxville News Sentinel from receiving any of the county’s paid notices.
With newspaper circulations dropping, many governments are wondering if they should post their own legal notices.
There was little discussion among commissioners at Monday’s work session of the ordinance, which among other things would limit the county to placing legal notices only in “non-subscription based” newspapers. But News Sentinel publisher Joel Christopher raised questions about the move, as did advocates for open government and newspapers in Tennessee.
“The way (county law) is written already allows them to switch between qualified publications as they choose,” Christopher said in an interview Monday. “So really what they’re proposing is limiting their options, not increasing them.”
At issue are the legal notices the county is required to provide on a range of matters: upcoming public meetings, sales of tax-delinquent properties, solicitations of bids for services. State law requires that many such notices be published in a “newspaper of general circulation” in the local community. The notices are typically paid advertisements that must appear both in print and online.
In the past two years, according to records provided by the county, Knox County has placed those notices primarily in two local newspapers: the News Sentinel and the Knoxville Focus. The News Sentinel, which operates as a subscription newspaper both in print and online, has received the bulk of the county’s business — about $223,000 in invoices. The Focus has received just under $8,400.
That could change under the new ordinance, which could seemingly give a windfall to the Focus — a free weekly newspaper published by longtime local political player Steve Hunley, a major force in the Republican Party in North and East Knox County.
The ordinance change, proposed by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Commission, has two parts. The first would create a new county website where all notices would be published, regardless of whether they are also published in a newspaper.
“I think that in this day and age when everyone is getting their news on social media and free news websites that it is antiquated to dig through a newspaper, especially when you have to pay for it,” Jacobs said in a statement. “This proposal is not only more transparent but it will also save the taxpayers money.”
County officials say they believe some percentage of notices could be placed only on the county website, and that future changes in state law could allow them to eventually post all notices online rather than paying for them to be published elsewhere.
The Legislature took a small step in that direction this year, passing a bill that will allow a specific type of notice — announcements of hearings under the Tennessee Governmental Entity Review Law — to be placed on a state website rather than published in newspapers across the state.
“Hopefully, talking to some of our counterparts at the state level, there will be more legislation coming down next year to really streamline more county-level things to this website,” Commissioner Kyle Ward told his colleagues. “So that eventually within probably the next year or two, all of our notifications will be housed on one website for more transparency.”
With newspaper print circulation, including the News Sentinel’s, down dramatically from its peak, governments across the country have been talking for more than a decade about just publishing their own online notices. They have argued they can effectively and inexpensively reach a public that has largely moved on from printed media.
But for now, while many items still require paid public notices in Tennessee, the new Knox County ordinance would restrict the county to placing them only in newspapers that don’t charge for subscriptions.
Christopher said he was not concerned about the money — a small fraction of the News Sentinel’s annual revenues — but about the county’s ability to reach the largest possible audience.
“I intentionally have not asked our team what that (revenue amount) is, just because I don’t think that’s the most important issue,” he said.
Hunley, a possible beneficiary of the proposed change, returned a phone call about the issue on Monday but said he needed time to study the ordinance before commenting on its potential impact on his business.
The Widest Reach?
Carol Daniels, executive director of the Tennessee Press Association, which represents member newspapers across the state, said the point of public notification is to reach as many people as possible, not to do it as cheaply as possible.
“They need to realize they’re elected officials, they’re public servants,” Daniels said. “Their job is to represent and inform the public, the largest amount of the public.”
Daniels said she had spoken with five of the 11 county commissioners on Monday and had encouraged them to change the ordinance to merely read “a newspaper of general circulation” — the phrase used in state law — rather than restricting it to non-subscription publications.
To qualify under the state definition, a newspaper must publish at least once a week in print, be at least four pages long, offer information of general interest and have published continuously for at least 52 consecutive weeks. The law does not distinguish between subscription and free papers.
Christopher said the News Sentinel places all of its public notices online, in a section of the knoxnews.com website that does not require a subscription. In addition, Daniels said, all public notices published by newspapers in Tennessee are housed online at tnpublicnotice.com, a free site that is maintained by the Tennessee Press Association.
In an email to Commission Chair Larsen Jay on Monday, Christopher said, "Small private outlets and the public sector will never be able to match the digital reach of a news organization like the News Sentinel, which has advantages of search primacy online and distribution in print that can’t be replicated by other private or public options."
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that since the county can already place its notices in either the News Sentinel or the Focus, there was no reason to legally restrict its choices.
“It’s good to establish a county web page. Why not? Of course they should do that,” Fisher said in an email Monday. “But they shouldn’t tie their hands by an artificial ordinance limiting them to purchasing ad space in just a certain type of publication.”
The City of Knoxville also uses only two local newspapers for its public notices, according to spokesman Eric Vreeland — the News Sentinel and the East Tennessee Enlightener, the only Black-owned general circulation newspaper in Knoxville. Vreeland said the city had shrunk its expenditure on public notices considerably in recent years, publishing meeting notices on its own website and in some cases running short paid notices with links to full information.
“The city advertises at least (once) a month with the News Sentinel and the Enlightener on RFPs, RFQs, bid opportunities, etc.,” Vreeland said in an email. “Some of these ads are more detailed than others, for various reasons.”
Commissioners pushed the proposed county ordinance forward to their May 24 meeting with no recommendation. Jay said in a text message afterward that he has sought some clarification on the ordinance.
“I have asked for some more information on public notices and what we are required to do, why and how, per law,” he said. He added, “I hope this ordinance is just the first in many steps to eliminating the need to spend money on any/all public notices for Knox County, the Trustee, zonings and land use items.”