Readers of small newspapers in North Dakota may soon see changes in the public notices section.
Under current state law, county and state mutual insurance companies are required to publish annual report abstracts in a local newspaper where the company primarily conducts business. This requirement has been North Dakota law for over a century, but the Senate voted 36-11 Friday (Jan. 19) to end that requirement.
If Senate Bill 2143 passes the House and is signed by the governor, insurance companies “would have then the opportunity to put their report on the state insurance commissioner’s website,” said Sen. Mark Weber, R-Casselton, the bill sponsor.
The bill was filed on behalf of the North Dakota Insurance Department. A similar bill was introduced last session, according to Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, but failed in the house.
Access to insurance abstract information currently requires the public to pay for a newspaper subscription, Godfread said during committee testimony. He said that he believes that running abstracts in weekly newspapers causes a transparency issue, noting that newspapers are a business and they get to determine when information even gets published. He also said archived information is easier to find on the state website than on the North Dakota Newspaper Association website.
Jack McDonald, who spoke against the bill before the Senate Industry and Business Committee, said North Dakota newspapers could lose over $507,000 a year by not running the abstracts as ads in their publications. The committee advanced the bill on a 5-0 vote.
The change would not significantly hurt larger papers, McDonald said, but it could prove fatal for smaller properties and add to a decline in local news coverage. Three North Dakota newspapers had to close their doors last year, leaving their communities without a local paper.
“The parents [in these communities] won't see their kids’ graduation pictures, they won't see who got the valedictorian award at the high school, they won't see the sports page,” McDonald said. “They won't even see reports from their local legislators.”
McDonald said that most residents are not likely to seek out abstract information on the state website, a point echoed by Bismarck Tribune Editor Amy Dalrymple. She testified in committee that having public notices printed in the newspaper is about transparency. She said this bill starts a slippery slope that coulc lead to other information not being as readily available to the public.
“If pretty soon, the public has to go to a dozen websites to get information, I think we have a less informed public,” she said.