Iowa is not unique in requiring public notice advertising. The legislatures of every state require such paid advertising in newspapers. And for a very good reason.
Historically, the nation's state legislators have determined that it's good public policy to require local government officials to disclose to taxpayers in writing the actions they've taken and how they've spent public tax dollars. This information is treated as paid advertising to enable newspapers to afford to publish it.
Opponents of public notice advertising suggest newspapers should be covering meetings of public bodies in the first place and should not be charging to publish the minutes. No newspaper in Iowa can afford to send reporters to every government meeting held in its coverage area. Newspapers do the best they can with the resources they have to staff the most important meetings where elected officials discuss how tax dollars will be spent.
But even assuming that coverage of every meeting was possible, the newswriting process would dictate that not every action taken by the public body would be reported.
That's where public notice advertising comes in. The public notice is the only truly objective and comprehensive account detailing the actions of our elected officials.
These notices are published in newspapers to assure distribution and readership. The fee newspapers charge for the notices is often less than the price charged to other advertisers for identical space in the paper.
Public notices serve as a type of low-cost accountability insurance. So long as schools, cities and counties regularly publish accounts of their meetings and detail how they have spent taxpayers' money, no citizen can accuse these government units of trying to hide behind a cloak of secrecy.
Opponents attempt to characterize newspapers as being financially subsidized by publishing public notice advertising. Newspapers are no more subsidized for accepting money for these required notices than are other commercial entities for charging local government a fair price for the products or services they provide.
The Iowa Newspaper Association has been active in trying to stop what it perceives as an erosion of public notices in this state. In 1985, a special Blue Ribbon Panel of publishers studied Iowa's public notice laws, compared them with those in other states and established what a balanced legislative program for reforming Iowa's laws. Many reforms have already been passed. Some of them have resulted in less revenue for newspapers. Others have eliminated some papers' ability to publish certain notices at all. But assuring all newspapers of a fair price for this service is not the sole objective of this reform effort. Rather, the INA is working to see that as much information reaches as many citizens as possible at the lowest cost to local government.
Iowa's newspapers continue to rank among the nation's most aggressive when it comes to local government reporting. If you think Iowa newspapers are not doing their job as watchdogs of government, just ask any public official. But without public notices, newspapers would be unable to tell the whole story and the public would be the loser.