My wife says I buy too many newspapers. That’s probably true. I’m guaranteed two a day and often pick up two or three others. At the end of the week I usually have three weekly papers and where I work in Montgomery County I could easily pick up at least 6 more.
Buying newspapers is part of my day job. When I’m not busy writing brilliant opinion columns I run a chamber of commerce in Montgomery County. I get the papers primarily for the small print in the back pages. I read almost everything under the label of legal advertising.
There’s a lot being said about newspaper reporting these days. So many claims of bias have led to economic upheaval in the industry. But has anything ever been reported in an unbiased fashion? After all most reporters are human and bias is an integral part of human nature.
But bias should be accompanied by at least a basic knowledge of facts. When it comes to land use and zoning of property most reporters I’ve come across have no clue what the law is in Pennsylvania.
Reporters seem to triumph when projects worth millions of dollars are politically derailed. In a recent case a reporter wrote of residents’ sensitivity when the townships’ supervisors basically seized a private residence, rendering it useless.
The township has no money to buy the house. The owner’s only recourse is to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to recover their loss. That fact went unreported. That’s where the real value of legal advertising is. In the vacuum of municipal zoning the only unbiased way to know if the borough that borders your property is putting a cesspool in your backyard is if you follow the legal ads. They are in the newspaper long before a reporter might discover what is happening. In that forewarning you can take action. If left to the aftermath all you might be able to do is enjoy the smell.
Most legal ads have their roots in Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code. The code that allow thousands of boroughs and townships in this state to govern what gets built and where. The only way to keep track of these conveniently and conclusively is to have them published as public notices in newspapers. Their straight forward content is to the point.
In an effort led by State Representative Barbara McIllvaine Smith, the code that governs legal advertising in newspapers would change. Legal ads would become part of a municipality’s website. It might work for the estimated 60% of Pennsylvanians who have home based convenient access to the internet. For the 40% that do not, especially in development threatened areas of rural Pennsylvania, it creates another vacuum in government that this state does not need. For people with cross regional interests it means trolling internet sites for hours trying to keep abreast of what all the different townships and boroughs are doing. Governments aren’t without bias either and left to their own devices, well, newspapers have well chronicled the mischief that can and does exist.
There are those who make the argument that legal ads are too economically important to newspapers in the fragile economic state they are in. That argument is beyond fallacious to the point of ridicule.
This is not the time to end legal notices in newspapers. With federal ‘stimulus’ dollars being poured into building projects and the pell-mell run to create them, the public’s right to know is more important than ever. Someday if Harrisburg develops the courage to modernize Pennsylvania’s anachronistic Municipal Planning Code then it can be determined how best to inform the citizenry of what is going in their own backyards.
Albert Paschall is Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research,a non-profit educational foundation based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Somedays is syndicated to leading newspapers and radio stations through out Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]