newspaper_web.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ For decades, the citizens of Sullivan have learned about upcoming government meetings and contracts through the central Illinois town's weekly newspaper, the Sullivan News-Progress. Even as the paper changed names over the years, people always knew where to find the public notices.

State law requires local governments to post such notices in newspapers. But now an effort to bring the practice into the digital age could cause a fundamental shift in how Illinois residents get information about local affairs.

A bill pending in the General Assembly would let cash-strapped governments post public notices online instead of paying to run them in print. While the shift has been considered in other states, Illinois would be the first in the nation to drop the requirement that notices run in local newspapers, according to newspaper associations.

“That's my tax dollar,'' said Rep. Randy Ramey, R-Carol Stream. “I'm asking them to save that tax dollar.''

But the idea raises particular concerns in places like Sullivan, a town of 4,396 where one in five residents is older than 65 and the newspaper depends on the government advertising revenue.

“There are a lot of people who don't have access to the Internet and they rely on the paper for the published notices,'' said Sue Sides, Sullivan's city clerk.

The amount of savings from the legislation is hard to ascertain, and the bill's sponsor says a compromise would be needed before it could pass.

Backers say it would save money if governments could use the Internet to announce public meetings, post meeting agendas and minutes, or document contract bids. More and more people get their news online anyway, they argue.

Opponents say the move would not only make it harder for some people to track what their governments are doing, but would eliminate a source of ad money that is vital to many community newspapers.

Bob Best, publisher of the News-Progress, said 17 percent of the newspaper's advertising revenue comes from public notices. If he loses that, he would have to cut two of his 10 employees and perhaps even cease publication, he said.

“Our readers are adamant about getting their local news, and those kinds of notices are strictly local,'' Best said.

The News-Progress has served a rural area southeast of Decatur for more than 150 years, and previously was called the Sullivan Express and the Sullivan Democrat. Best said many Sullivan residents lack Internet access or simply prefer to get their information in print.

Small-town papers haven't seen the same circulation drops that plague their urban counterparts and remain in many cases the main source of news, he said.

Sides, the town clerk, said the town already posts council minutes and agendas online. She said she doubts the town would cease publishing public notices in newspapers even if the bill became law.

Several other states have considered similar legislation. There currently are bills in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania that would allow government units to post online. Michigan backed off of a bill last year that would have done the same.

Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, introduced the legislation but sees himself as more of a moderator among different interests than an advocate for the bill. He said the measure probably won't pass unless a compromise can be worked out among all sides.

Several groups, including the AARP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and newspaper associations, have voiced concern about the bill harming people who lack Internet access or don't feel comfortable using computers.

Pew Research Center data show that a third of Americans do not have Internet access. The U.S. Census Bureau said 46 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics lack home Internet access.

Jerry Crabtree, associate director of Township Officials of Illinois, acknowledged complications for those who don't have access to a computer. But he is an advocate of the bill and suggested that people can use computers at the local library.

Best scoffed at that idea, noting Sullivan's library only has two computers.

“I just don't see somebody on a weekly basis traveling to their library and logging in for that specific option when a newspaper can be delivered to their home every week and all they have to do is read,'' Best said.

It's not clear just how much money local governments spend on these notices.

The Township Officials organization says each of the state's 1,432 townships spends “hundreds of dollars'' every year. The Illinois Municipal League said 12 metropolitan counties _ DeKalb, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, Madison, McHenry, McLean, Peoria, Tazewell, Will and Winnebago _ spent nearly $5 million on public notices over four years.

Josh Sharp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Press Association, said he doubts any newspapers would go out of business if they lose the public notices. But he also questioned how much money government would save _ particularly when employees would still have to compile the notices and spend time updating and archiving the material online.

He said the cost of publishing public notices is somewhere around one-tenth of a percent of local government budgets.

“When you look at the amount spent on public notices, you're dealing with what would be a rounding error in county budgets,'' Sharp said. “It's a miniscule amount and frankly the cost of doing business for government.''