Public notice draft legislation tabled after Montana news organizations testify

By: - September 8, 2022 7:43 pm

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After Montana news organization leaders testified this week against draft legislation that would allow local municipalities to publish public notice online, rather than in print newspapers, lawmakers tabled the bill.

The draft bill, PD12, sought to allow counties and municipalities to electronically publish required notices that alert the public to future government action. But the comments in response tapped into a debate over how people consume news as the media industry evolves.

Wednesday, the majority of the public opposed the draft, and a written comment from one Teton County official said, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

However, at least one Cascade County official wrote that it’s time to switch to digital as more people read news online.

Regional editor for Lee Enterprises David McCumber told the Local Government Interim Committee that newspapers in Montana are not going away, with more people reading Lee content online and in print than ever before. Lee owns most of the print outlets in major markets in the state.

“Our pages and pixels are where Montanans come for their news, and there’s no other place that could possibly be as effective in reaching those interested in public notices,” McCumber said.

Ronda Wiggers, representing the Montana Broadcasters Association, said that the bill isn’t ready for prime time. She said that Jenn Rowell of The Electric in Great Falls, an online news outlet, originally brought the bill, but that it was impossible to define an online newspaper.

“I don’t know how to differentiate between Jenn at The Electric, who is doing a great job of reporting public news, and the gentleman in Sidney who made stuff up about numerous of us in this state,” Wiggers said, referring to J.D. Hall.

Hall was behind the Montana Gazette and apologized for fabricating a story after being sued for libel.

Rowell could not be reached for comment Thursday via email.

Former publisher of the Missoulian Jim Strauss, speaking as a representative of the Montana Newspaper Association, said that he asked Billings attorney Martha Sheehy to outline the legal requirements to publish a public notice. He said she advised it must be accessible, archivable, independent, cost efficient and verifiable.

“As Miss Sheehy notes in her letter, the newspaper’s print notice cannot be manipulated, is not transitory, is routinely archived in a secure and publicly available format for use by the public, the judicial system researchers and historians,” Strauss said. “Sheehy also notes that newspapers go one step further to guarantee authenticity by having each public notice published notarized.”

The Montana Newspaper Association currently posts all public notices in the state online at

However, in the afternoon work session, Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D- Helena, expressed concern that the Legislature was not preparing for a digital future.

“What if we finish the session, and the brass at Lee decides, we’re going to go completely digital, we’d be two years without the ability to make public notices,” she said, noting the exception for small counties without a paper of record that are required to publish in an adjacent county.

The bill would not impact notices from state agencies, schools, or courts, according to the legislative service’s policy analysis. The analysis also said the draft legislation would not allow for publication of notices in “online-only publications.”

In written public comment, Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore said she has struggled with the mandatory advertising in the Great Falls Tribune.

“Every year we are right down to the last minute on getting our ads in the paper and this last primary, we had to hire an additional company to lay up our add [sic] which was an additional cost,” she wrote in an email Sept. 7. “Many folks to [sic] not get the paper anymore and it is important to focus on the current generation and the need for electronic advertisement.”

She said she wasn’t advocating replacing the newspaper placement but advocating to be able to place ads “where the majority have access and that is by digital means.”

The media landscape in Montana and beyond is shifting. Both Lee Enterprises and Gannett, which owns the Great Falls Tribune, have started to scale back print on certain holidays, with the Tribune no longer printing a Saturday edition.

In Lee Enterprises’ latest SEC filing, the company outlined its strategy moving forward, which focused on expanding digital audiences and digital subscriptions.

Meanwhile, online news outlets have grown in size and stature across the country and in the state, including in Montana the Daily Montanan, the Montana Free Press and the Electric.

At the meeting, the commission voted to table the draft legislation, after which Dunwell moved to reconsider PD7, another bill that would amend the current law to allow small counties to post public notices on their website if they have one.

Dunwell wished to add the amendment to PD7 to include “or electronic news media” for the small counties bill, but the committee voted down the amendment nine to one.

Dunwell will carry PD7, with Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitehall, as a backup.

Reporter Nicole Girten formerly worked as a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune and is a staff reporter for the Daily Montanan.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.