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It’s time to modernize public notice rates in Mississippi

Mississippi’s newspapers have been trusted with publishing legally-required government notices for decades – centuries, in fact. Of course we publish news about cities, counties, and schools in our communities, but newspaper media also provides a valuable service to government and the public by independently distributing required legal notices to audiences far and wide.

Public notices – or “legals” – usually appear on the classified page of a newspaper and deal seemingly with mundane issues like bid notices, zoning ordinances, and run-of-the-mill government expenses. But they also deal with very delicate matters like foreclosures and delinquent taxes. These are critical to due process, and they must be handled with care. Proper affidavits must be created by newspapers to make certain any legal proceedings resulting from these notices pass muster in the courts.

Newspapers are paid for this vital service. It has been that way from coast-to-coast since the founding of our nation. But in Mississippi, public notice rates are set by government statute. And they have remained the same – on average, 11 cents per word – since 1998. A city like Tupelo spent a mere $8,400 on notices last year. Kosciusko, meanwhile, spent about $3,200.

If Mississippi allowed cities and counties to publish notices on their own websites, it is likely they would spend far more on technology and personnel to make the process happen.

So, they get a tremendous bargain with newspaper notices. In most states, rates are not set by the government, allowing newspapers elsewhere to charge significantly more.

The rate of inflation since 1998 has been a staggering 80%, much of that coming in the few years since the COVID pandemic.

Meanwhile, Mississippi newspaper media has been modernizing public notice, first publishing them on a statewide database, mspublicnotices.org, way back in 1999. This is a convenient, one-stop repository for notices appearing in newspapers statewide. It gives both private citizens and public officials a central location to follow vital government information in their communities.

This website is free and publicly accessible to anyone with an internet connection, greatly expanding beyond traditional print newspapers the reach of notices from Corinth to Biloxi. This added service doesn’t cost government a dime. And it eliminates any need for government bodies to publish notices on hundreds of disparate websites.

It’s a fact Mississippians still want their local newspapers to be trusted with public notices. A 2023 survey by Coda Ventures of Nashville found 70% believe newspapers should continue to publish legals. Government, they say, should not be its own watchdog of this information.

The Mississippi Press Association, the trade group representing state newspapers, is investing in upgrades to the online platform that will make public notices more efficient for advertisers and convenient for citizens. All of this has come at no expense to either government or taxpayers. The cost has been entirely underwritten for a quarter century by Mississippi’s newspaper media.

Therefore, we argue it’s time to acknowledge that investment – and the continued pressures of inflation – and increase the public notice rates set by law. Similar bills have passed in both Georgia in 2023 and Nebraska in 2022 with strong support of legislators on both sides of the political aisle. They understand the vital role of local newspaper media.

We urge our local legislators to back bills filed in both the House and Senate to modernize rates and help us invest in the future of public notice.

–Mississippi Press Association