PUBLIC INFORMATION — Writing in SF Weekly, Matt Smith reports that in San Francisco, some of the city's top elected leaders want to stop having new ordinances published in newspapers and instead post them on the city's own website.
Supervisors David Chiu, Ross Mirkarimi, John
Avalos, and David Campos members of the city's left "progressive"
wing have quietly slipped anti-newspaper language into a proposed
charter amendment that is being characterized as a mere measure to
require five-year budget plans. Sprinkled unassumingly throughout,
however, are edicts to strip part of the $450,000 in annual city
advertising placed in newspapers, primarily the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Instead of publishing the notices in newspapers, the proposed measure would have the city post notices only on its Web site, www.sfgov.org.
"I think there has to be some innovation in upgrading our ability to
reach out and spend limited dollars on advertising, and modernize the
way we do it," Mirkarimi said during a June 17 committee meeting. "The
way we are doing it now is almost archaic." State law requires San
Francisco and other cities to use newspapers for official notices,
potentially limiting the proposed charter amendment's scope.
However, a pending bill in the state Legislature backed by
California's local government clerks would allow public agencies to
stop paying newspapers to publish government ads such as legal notices,
and instead direct residents to a municipal Web site.
Newspaper publishers say this is yet another in a long list of efforts by bureaucrats to hide their activities from the public.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers
Association, said allowing cities and counties to limit public notices
to government-run Web sites would create a conflict of interest.
Politicians and government employees, he said, often seek to hide,
rather than publicize, their business.
Smith suggests that if public agencies want to grab their money's worth of eyeballs, government can't compete with private enterprise.
This idea that news organizations are an outdated way of obtaining
information, and that other Web-based media are more up-to-date, comes
up a lot nowadays. The public itself, however, is not buying this line
of dot-com bombast.
Despite their financial problems, newspapers, whether online or in
print, remain by far the most popular source of information about
public life. The Chronicle's Web site, SFGate, has more than
3.4 million unique monthly visitors, 400,000 more than it did a year
ago, according to the Web analytics site Compete.com. The Examiner's parent company site, Examiner.com, had 3.7 unique million visitors this past month, six times its traffic a year ago; www.sfgov.org, by comparison, had 223,000.
Californians outside San Francisco obtain an even greater portion of
their information from newspapers and newspaper Web sites. As an
example, Newton cites Grass Valley, a city two hours north of San
Francisco, whose official Web site gets 150 daily visitors, while the Grass Valley Union
newspaper's site gets 45,000. For finding specific information, a
government Web site is a natural place to go. For a citizenry that
wishes to remain casually informed about the day-to-day business of
government, newspapers and their Web sites are by far the preferred