Which newspaper (if any) should the city advertise with?

Last week at the City Council agenda session, the issue of which local newspaper to publish 2009 public notices in almost got skimmed right over. That is, until Ward 3 Alderman Bobby Ferrell spoke up.

“Is this a bid?” he asked, upon realizing that the proposed advertising contract with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was for a whopping $102,225. The answer was “no.”

What exactly does that mean? It means that once again, the City Council is being asked to approve an advertising budget with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette without considering the possibility of using another local newspaper that might (or might not) save some money.

The city contract for public notice advertising has long since belonged to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Although the question of whether or not to switch to The Morning News has come up twice before, the decision has always been to stay the course.

Public notices such as city ordinances, bond issues, bid advertisements, etc. are required by law to be advertised in a newspaper that is “published” in Fayetteville. Of course, “published” is the key word here. What does that even mean?

Neither newspaper is printed in Fayetteville, so are we to assume that “published” must mean “prepared” in this instance? If so, things are still foggy considering both have offices in Fayetteville that “prepare” Fayetteville-specific news to be “published” in a regional-specific newspaper.

So now what? How does the City Council decide which paper to spend money with? The editors at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Northwest Arkansas Times think it’s an easy decision.

“In Fayetteville, the local paper (that’s us) goes to many thousands more reader households than our Springdale competitor does,” read yesterday’s Times editorial.

Although it’s no surprise to us that the Democrat-Gazette would be in favor of itself, it’s silly to pretend that either newspaper is more local than the other. The Morning News produces a Fayetteville edition and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has its Northwest Arkansas Times insert, but ask anyone around here what the local newspaper is and you’ll certainly get a confusing answer.

If circulation is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s position, then just leave it at that. There’s certainly a good argument that reaching more of the public is key. But getting all technical about where each paper is “based” will only lead to one conclusion: Both papers are “based” 200 miles south of here, in Little Rock.

With newspapers across the country falling apart left and right, to us, the bigger issue here is whether or not the city should be considering a newspaper at all.

Or better yet, if the state legislature isn’t quite ready to allow public notices to be displayed on these fancy new internet thingies, should the newspapers even be charging the city to provide vital public information in the first place?

It will be up to the City Council, once again, to decide all of this. Which direction do you think they should go on Tuesday evening?

[Update: More at The Iconoclast.]