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What's the best way for a government to communicate with its people? At one point it was undoubtedly the newspaper. That's why state and local governments, state agencies, as well as some businesses and individuals, are required to place legal notices in their local paper. But declining newspaper readership, along with the rise of social networking, is leading some to question whether this is the best way for a government to share information.
The state of Arkansas is required to make public announcements regarding rule changes, public meetings, environmental conditions, property foreclosures, and other government actions. Of course, the money for the ads comes from the state treasury. Some states have changed their laws to allow legal notices to be placed on websites to cut costs. Those in the newspaper business are resistant. Advertising sales from legal notices can make up a significant portion of a paper's income.
But the times they are a changin'. In May, the Obama administration announced it would no longer buy ad space to announce property forfeiture notices, saving $6.7 million over the next five years. The White House also gets their message across through Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Myspace, YouTube, Vimeo, and an official blog.
State governments are following along. A revamped Arkansas.gov was unveiled last week. The site includes numerous ways to connect, an updated search engine and RSS feeds.
“I think the idea of what constitutes a good-faith effort to communicate with citizens has changed as these technologies have become ubiquitous,” says Matthew Petty, a Fayetteville alderman, entrepreneur and social media enthusiast. Petty, who is 26, decided his city could take better advantage of new technology and introduced a resolution to codify it.
“The reason I brought it up was because I was doing some research on subscriber rates to our local papers and I found that Facebook had more local users than both of the local newspapers had subscribers — about 8,000 more,” Petty says.
The resolution, which was passed unanimously by the Fayetteville City Council, required the city to develop a communication plan that incorporated social media and to revisit the plan annually.
“Initially there was some controversy about whether or not incorporating this kind of technology is appropriate for a government to do or whether or not this opened us up to security concerns or lawsuits, and that was a good conversation to have,” Petty says. “I just think that communicating with the citizens is one of our primary duties and we need to meet citizens where they're at and try to get them to participate as much as we can.”
According to the most recent numbers I was able to find, there are more than 295,000 Facebook users in Arkansas. The state's largest newspaper has a weekday circulation of around 180,000. But moving legal notices to a web-only format, while it could save the state money, would likely create some problems.
“From a newspaper standpoint, yeah, that would hurt, but by putting it online you're making it a non-public notice,” says Brian Fellone, communications coordinator for the Arkansas Press Association. “In the big cities you have a whole lot more Internet users that might go find it. Internet access in the rural parts of the state is less than 50 percent.”
And that, Fellone says, will disproportionately affect older Arkansans.
Beyond communication with the public or simply getting a message across, Petty says there's a larger issue at play: good government.
“The question,” he says, “has evolved from how are we going to use these tools to what is the big picture and what are some of the systemic efficiencies that can be made by looking at the way we manage information in our government?”
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