The evolving landscape of public notices: Balancing tradition and technology


Many — probably most — people can’t live without the news. It influences and informs how they live their lives and make decisions. Although the machinations of the government, political discourse and discord, celebrity fashions and scandals and the triumphs and failings of one’s favorite sports team and hero/heroine receive all the big headlines, news outlets also publish content that has a significant impact on many lives: public notices.

As the Public Notice Resource Center succinctly states, “Public notice is information alerting citizens of government or government-related activities that may cause a citizen to take action.” Public notices are typically of three types:

  • Government activities: Publication of government budgets, public hearing announcements and changes to the administration of government
  • Business with the government: Publication of governments’ requests for bids for projects, products and services; corporations’ intent to open a business or their dissolution; and unclaimed property notices
  • Court notices: Publication of information from businesses and organizations not part of the government but using its services, e.g., the appointment of an administrator for an estate

Public notices moved from being posted in public squares for thousands of years to their first appearance in an English-language newspaper — The Oxford Gazette, later The London Gazette — more than 325 years ago. This started the tradition of newspapers as the recognized, sole source of public notices, which became law in the United States during the very first session of the U.S. Congress in 1789.

Since then, the laws and regulations about public notices have evolved and today there are approximately 30,000 laws at the federal level and legislated in all 50 states. Not every newspaper can publish public notices. To qualify, newspapers typically must have a paid circulation, a minimum percentage of news content, a local publishing address and a continuous publishing history. These parameters vary with each state’s laws.

The four elements of a valid public notice are also part of the tradition and are embodied in state laws.

  • Public notices must be published by a third party, such as a newspaper, independent of the government.
  • Public notices must be archivable in different locations and formats.
  • Public notices must be accessible to everyone.
  • Public notices must be verifiable, so the public knows they were not altered following publication. Publishers provide an affidavit as evidence.

Many states are initiating new public notice laws for the digital age

Mississippi Press Public Notices website

Although newspapers retain their traditional preeminence as the primary source of public notices, the same transition of news content to the web is now affecting public notices. While some like to snicker at members of the U.S. Congress and state legislators for their lack of understanding of the digital world, many state legislatures have or are addressing this transition with new/updated laws allowing news outlets and governments to publish public notices on their websites.

“During the past 15 to 20 years, there’s been quite a few bills in different states that would move all or a significant portion of notices to government websites or allow them to be published on government websites. More legislatures are comfortable with moving them to newspaper websites or newspaper-associated websites,” Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, said.

Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association

Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, said more bills were introduced in the recent Mississippi legislative session that would have adversely affected public notices in newspapers. None of those bills passed, including one that would have increased public notice rates, but he considered that a win for association members and the public at large.

“We do lobby against these bills. The strongest argument we can make is requiring government entities and private parties to run public notices in newspapers and on affiliated websites, putting them in a central location for each community. It has been an established precedent for many years. Putting them on disparate government websites across the state creates a hardship for people who pay attention to public notices and seek information,” Bruce said.

Despite the strong voices of state press associations, some states have passed historical public notice laws. Indiana is the latest example. Three bills will become law as of July 1, 2024, and of the three, House Bill 1204 gives governmental bodies the option of publishing notices on some newspaper websites or e-editions and not in their print editions. Indiana is the first state to take this step. The bill's fine print stipulates that the new law only applies to newspapers with fewer than four weekly editions. Those with four or more editions will be the sole publications where governments’ public notices will appear.

Representative Jennifer Meltzer (R-Shelbyville), State of Indiana House of Representatives

Representative Jennifer Meltzer (R-Shelbyville) was prompted to sponsor House Bill 1204 because of feedback from local governments.

“Newspapers in Indiana publish fewer print editions, some just once or twice weekly. The periods for when a public notice must appear in a newspaper and the scheduled date for a meeting or action became longer and longer. It was slowing my constituents and businesses from being able to work with the local government and efficiently and effectively do business,” Meltzer said.

Virginia Press Association leadership helps to craft new public notice laws

Several local online news websites, with the support of a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, had tried to pass bills in recent years to allow online news sites to publish public notices. All failed and were challenged by the Virginia Press Association. According to Betsy Edwards, executive director, the association didn’t support these bills because they were poorly written.

Virginia’s Public Notices website

“There were no specific requirements for online news sites to qualify to publish public notices. The publishers pushing for these bills were not as familiar with the ins and outs of public notices as the members of our association. Many of our members have published notices for 100 years, and 330 laws and regulations about public notices have been added over the years,” Edwards said.

When the last bill didn’t pass, the online publishers and legislators who supported it approached the association and asked if they could work together to craft a bill beneficial and amenable to all parties. Edwards said the group started working in May 2023 and throughout the summer and fall to develop the requirements for online news sites to publish public notices that match those for newspapers.

Those requirements became part of Virginia House Bill 264, which passed both the House and Senate in February. Governor Glenn Youngkin then signed it into law, and it will become effective July 1, 2024. Virginia is now the first state to allow online news sites to publish public notices in addition to newspapers.

Betsy Edwards, executive director, Virginia Press Association

Edwards also explained why the association doesn’t support government entities publishing public notices for practical reasons, as well as the need for complete governmental transparency. Small local governments would have to assign an employee (or hire one) to prepare public notices and train them about the specifics of notices, such as typeface and headline size. This could cost as much or more than paying newspapers with decades of experience to publish those notices.

“If local governments put public notices on their websites, then utilities would want to put theirs on their websites, foreclosure trustees would want them on their websites and maybe lawyers on theirs or a court website. Someone searching for a particular notice might have to visit multiple websites but wouldn’t know which ones,” Edwards said.

Improving the public notice process and accessibility with technology

As more states pass legislation allowing for the publishing of public notices on any website, software has been developed to make the process easier for both print newspapers and online news sites and improve the accessibility of notices to the public.

Jake Seaton, founder and CEO of Column

Jake Seaton comes from a family with five generations of newspaper ownership in the Midwest. Shortly after graduating college, he observed the person who processed public notices at one of his family's newspapers. Seaton realized a software tool could reduce the amount of time that person spent with county clerks and treasurers, paralegals and others to prepare public notices for publication. The software he developed became the Column platform, which he launched in 2019 as founder and CEO. The software also supports the processing of obituaries and classifieds.

“Our software enables publishers to let their customers submit notices via their website. They can upload a document via a publisher’s website, be quoted a price, pay for the notice and then receive an affidavit. The notice can appear in print or on the newspaper’s website,” Seaton said.

To help newspapers comply with the archival requirement in many states’ laws, Column stores the public notices processed through the software. Notices are also fed to state press association websites, where all notices in the state are available in a searchable database and serve as the state’s archive of notices.

Illinois is one of those states. More than 10 years ago, the state legislature amended the public notice laws to require any public notices published in the state to be posted on a website at no additional cost to the public body. The Illinois Press Association created the necessary website based on the Arizona Newspaper Association platform, which the Illinois Association previously used.

Don Craven, president and CEO, Illinois Press Association

“Our platform, which other states have adopted and that conforms to Illinois law, posts notices on a complete and searchable website. It’s everything a state association would want it to be,” according to Don Craven, president and CEO of the Illinois Press Association.

Since the Illinois Press Association created its platform more than a decade ago, more than 30 other state associations have been using it, including Virginia.

Like Illinois, the Virginia legislature passed a law in 2019 requiring all public notices published in newspapers to be uploaded to a statewide public notice website the same day they run in the paper. According to Edwards, the Virginia Press Association’s public notice website had almost 800,000 visits last year.

The future of publishing public notices will depend on how each state’s legislature amends current statutes or passes new laws and the transition to more news being available and accessed on websites. Regardless of these developments, public notices will remain important for those who originate them and the public who needs that information.

Examples of states’ public notice legislation

According to the Public Notice Resource Center’s current legislation map, more than 30 states are considering over 160 public notice bills. Most of these bills focus on other policy matters, and the public notice component is only tangential. If passed, they would cause only minor changes to public notice laws. As with any introduced bills, these are in various stages in their states’ legislative process. Depending on the details of these bills, state newspaper associations may lobby for or against them.

  • The South Dakota legislature, with the support of the South Dakota NewsMedia Association (SDNMA), passed Senate Bill 75, which the governor signed into law. Free-circulation newspapers can now publish notices if they satisfy specific news coverage and subscriber and print circulation requirements, which are then independently audited every year.
  • Eighteen different bills relating to public notices are in various stages in the Missouri legislature. One of the bills would “authorize all notices, public and private, presently required to be published in a newspaper to be posted on the secretary of state’s website instead.”
  • The governor of Iowa signed a bill in April “requiring newspapers to post all of their notices on their state press association’s statewide public notice site,” becoming the 20th state to do so.
  • The New Jersey legislature is considering a bill that “allows municipalities to publish notices in free-circulation shoppers with at least 25 percent of the published words in English.”

To stay up-to-date with the most current legislation, visit the Public Notice Legislation section of the Public Notice Resource Center. To access the informative Policy Briefing Booklet, visit the Informing the Public section.

Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010.  He can be reached at


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  • Brian_Hews

    I publish a PRINT newspaper that publishes notices.

    Seems like the writer is schilling for online posting companies who can just put up a website and post notices without any qualifying criteria?

    WRITER: "To qualify, newspapers typically must have a paid circulation, a minimum percentage of news content, a local publishing address and a continuous publishing history. These parameters vary with each state’s laws.”

    Not true. You have to do all of that for THREE YEARS before you can get adjudicated and you have to be a WEEKLY PRINT NEWSPAPER.

    If notices move online, you might, as will kiss every community newspaper goodbye and some dailies...

    Brian Hews Owner/Publisher Los Cerritos Community News

    Tuesday, June 25 Report this