Patterson’s HB 537 is an insult to the public’s right to know

To anyone who says, “Newspapers are dead,” I say, “Sit at my desk the Monday after the post office sends a bundle of newspapers to Fort Worth by mistake.”

I say, “Answer my phone when someone has a neighbor whose dog ate their paper.”

I say, “Do my job when someone forgot to renew their subscription on time and, all of a sudden, realized they didn’t get their paper that week.”

The latter two incidents are far more common than the former, but they all occur from time to time.

When they do, I field calls from frustrated readers looking for their paper.

Though I get irritated when folks miss their paper, I also get encouraged by the number of people who really do miss their newspaper.

Community newspapers are more vital than ever to the mission of ensuring the public’s right to know.

They are an integral pillar of conversation and discourse and serve a role vital to the exercise of a free democracy.

Alas, though, the Texas Legislature is in session again and — again — there are more attacks on the public’s right to know by attempting to circumvent the public notice requirements in newspapers.

We’ve heard the excuses before; generally, politicians make these three arguments:

1. Nobody reads newspapers anymore.

2. Since nobody reads newspapers, nobody reads public notices.

3. Public notices are an expensive inconvenience and an unfair subsidy for newspapers.

Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) seems to agree. He has authored HB 537.

On its merits, this bill would empower county officials to post all legally required notices on the county’s website instead of publishing them in your newspaper.

Jared Patterson is a friend of mine. We grew up together.

Our families have been friends for generations, but I disagree with him on this legislation.

I hope he has not been in his Collin-Denton County suburban district so long that he has forgotten the plight of lack of broadband access in rural areas.

The communities my newspapers serve — and the majority of Texas community newspapers serve — do not have access to rural broadband internet.

Those that do have high poverty levels that make connectivity unattainable for folks who can otherwise afford an annual subscription to their community newspaper.

Simply posting something to the county website does not guarantee the public will be able to see it.

Similar anti-newspaper bills have been proposed before. Another such effort was derailed a few years ago after the Grayson County Commissioners Court — along with others across the state — passed a proclamation in opposition to any such legislation that would repeal or amend newspaper public notice standards.

They agreed the idea of eliminating notices from newspapers is dangerous.

Such abolitions of newspaper public notices appeal to some officials for three reasons they’d never admit:

1. Notices in newspapers absolutely DO get noticed by citizens.

2. Sometimes those public notices make voters mad.

3. When they get mad, those voters give officials an earful. Life is much easier when they can do things without anyone noticing, and newspaper notices make it impossible to be invisible. If you’re a public official, public notices can be inconvenient.

When it comes down to it, the newspaper public notice is still a bargain that works well in print.

This is both a business issue and personal issue for me.

I am a proud publisher of multiple Texas community newspapers. Moreover, I am the publisher of my hometown Texas newspaper — Jared Patterson’s hometown newspaper.

I consider a vote to eliminate newspaper notices to be a vote against me personally.

It is a vote against my hometown — Jared Patterson’s hometown. It is a vote against the communities I have the privilege of serving by my chosen profession.

Eliminating newspaper notices is an affront to a business that’s been a civic pillar for your community for longer than any of us have been on this earth.

That’s a fact none of us can be cavalier about.

Austin Lewter is the publisher of the Whitesboro News-Record, Lindsay Letter and Muenster Enterprise. He is also the co-owner and publisher of the Jefferson Jimplecute. He can be reached at [email protected].