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Small newspapers and their counties at odds over legal notice requirements

The county notices may keep papers alive, but do people read them? County governments argue the announcements should just be online.

DENVER — A lawsuit over Custer County’s decision to change its newspaper of record, because commissioners allegedly didn’t like the reporting of one paper, has reignited a conversation about why county governments are required to post so much in local papers.

The requirements are part of a century-old law requiring county governments to post their financial warrants, which detail county expenses.

“We are the only level of government who has to publish this,” said Eric Bergman with Colorado Counties, Inc., an association of county governments. “When everyone gets their news from their phones, their tablets, their computers… it’s just an unfair…its inequitable.”

Bergman said the law made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but the advent of the Internet made it obsolete.

“Our idea is that we should be able to publish this online. We should have the option to put this on our websites and archive it that way,” he said.

CCI surveyed county governments in 2018 and found statewide, counties spend about $754,000 publishing all notices in local media outlets.

“It can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a small rural county up to…I’ve heard estimates it could be 100,000 a year for an urban county,” Bergman said.

Journalists argue the transparency provided by the law is crucial.

“What’s going on financially at the counties is of obvious import to people in that county and really all across the state,” Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, said. “It’s really a transparency issue, just like open meetings and open records, and we view it very much in that light.”

An analysis from SEMRush Analytics from August of 2022 found the Denver Post’s homepage saw four times the traffic as the City of Denver’s site. The Boulder Daily Camera’s homepage saw five times the traffic as Boulder County’s site.

“It’s clear that local news sites, newspapers, TV stations, radio stations… they have by far the most visited websites in their community,” Regan-Porter said. “People don’t go to government websites, and they’re often very difficult to navigate.”

RELATED: Custer County newspaper sues county commissioners for First Amendment violation

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