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Lawmakers Pass Bill Allowing Digital News Sites to Post Public Notices

Lawmakers passed bills during the 2024 General Assembly session that impact the press, including online public notices, FOIA costs and government transparency.

The session was more promising for the press than some past sessions, according to Mechelle Hankerson, president of the Society of Professional Journalists Virginia Pro Chapter. More politicians are thinking about how to protect the press and its principles, something she believes not all states can say.

Public notices on digital sites

Local governments are currently required by state law to advertise certain public notices in newspapers. These notifications could include information about meetings, ordinances and matters like contested divorces.

Newspapers qualify if they meet a 50-week publication and circulation requirement, have paid subscribers and cover the area where the notice is required to be published. The notices also generate revenue for publications.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, introduced House Bill 264 to allow online-only publications to also post the public notices – and generate revenue from them – if they have regular news coverage. The bill passed the General Assembly last month.

The online site must employ local news staff, be registered for at least two years with the Virginia State Corporation Commission and have its own dedicated domain name. A link to the public notice section must be easily found from the home page, and the content cannot be behind a paywall.

Newspapers are required to keep an archive of the notices for three years. As part of the legislation, digital news sites will also have to post the notice to a searchable statewide repository website, where it will remain for three years.

Online news sites will have to petition the circuit court in the area where the public notices will be posted. They first have to publish a notice of intent in the local newspaper of record. If one does not exist, then the notice must be published in the newspaper of record in a nearby jurisdiction.

A copy of web analytics will also have to be provided to continue publishing the public notices.

The state SPJ chapter worked with other news organizations to advance the bill because it could make “a material difference for some news organizations,” according to Hankerson.

The legislation helps even the playing field for emerging media platforms who have no options for participating in public notice revenue, according to Hankerson. It could also help better inform citizens, especially at a time when newspaper readership is on the decline.

 “That’s great that you are required to post information about, you know, contemplating a tax increase, but if your only requirement is to post it in the one place where the majority of people don’t read it anymore, you’re not really doing anything for democracy anymore,” Hankerson said.

Government transparency

The legislature also passed three bills to create more transparency in government affairs, including two that make changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The act, also known as FOIA, outlines how the public can request certain documents from government agencies.

Sen. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, introduced Senate Bill 324, to prohibit a public body from charging a person, if it is their first request, for any costs during the first hour spent accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the records. After that, the hourly charge has to be the lesser option of $40 or the hourly rate of pay of the lowest-paid individual capable of fulfilling the request. There are some exemptions to the cap.

Roem, a former journalist, has tried to create some “uniformity” across the board when it comes to FOIA requests and fees, according to Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association. The VPA works to support the business side of journalism, and its First Amendment rights.

People should not have to pay extremely high amounts of money to get information from the government, and they should be able to know how much it is going to cost, Edwards said.

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 69 to require local governing bodies or school boards to hold a public meeting at least seven days prior to making interim appointments.

The bill will give journalists the opportunity to ask questions and report on candidates put forward by the local governing body, Edwards said.

Sen. Saddam Salim, D-Fairfax, introduced SB 340 to keep the name of a public employee, officer or official from exemption on a credit card statement or other payment record. The bill also clarifies that the description of purchases are not exempt from disclosure.

“Just kind of clarifies that if you ask for a credit card statement, that the name remains intact and is not a security control that can be redacted,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The Coalition advocates for transparency in government on behalf of the public. They tracked over 70 related bills this year.

“The open records laws and open meetings laws exist for everyone,” Rhyne said. “But if the media can’t get records, or can’t get into a meeting, just think how much harder it’s going to be for a citizen to do the same thing.”

Although it is impossible to compare Virginia open government laws against other states, there are ways the state could improve, Rhyne said.

Virginia is 1 of 9 U.S. states that does not put a limit on how much can be charged for the labor involved to fulfill a request. There is also a broadly worded and applied “gigantic exemption” for the governor and lieutenant governor, General Assembly, school superintendents and other high ranking public officials, according to Rhyne.

“We also have a catastrophically bad section dealing with closed criminal investigative files,” Rhyne said.

The governor has until April 8 to take action on bills passed this session.

By Olivia Dileo / Capital News Service

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