When newspapers grub for money—and lately, most of us are grubbing around a lot—we’re not supposed to use our editorial space to do it. See, readers need reassurance that once we put on our “tell it like it is” hats, we leave our self interests behind.

That’s why we were so surprised to see the Missoulian’s shameless editorial on March 20 lamenting that the Missoula County government gave the contract for its public notices to the Indy this year. The Missoulian tried to couch what amounted to a sales pitch as a defense of democracy, arguing that “providing public notices through media with significantly smaller readership violates the very intention of such notices.”

Baloney. Public notice requirements safeguard Montanans’ guaranteed right to know what their government’s doing and promote their right to get involved. But to suggest that bigger equates to better or more equates to more effective ain’t gonna float a principled boat. If citizens buy into that bull, then they should require the government to make direct contact with every individual regarding its activities, to be absolutely sure that we’ve all got the picture. The Missoulian’s editorial board failed to notice that nobody’s ever pushed for anything like that or bothered to write it into Montana code.

The Indy cares as much about open government as anyone, but you won’t hear us caterwauling about some senseless ideal of perfect public notice. State law currently allows that any notice in a regularly published local periodical that contains news of a general character and interest to the community and reaches a diversity of readers meets the necessary standard. We qualify. So does the Missoulian. Each paper has its strengths. Readers generally need to pay to read a notice in the Missoulian. You can read the Indy for free. A single issue of the Missoulian reaches about 43,000 Missoula County adults, compared to 29,000 for us. But we charge the county about half as much. The commissioners weighed the choices and picked the Indy. And, oh yeah, there was this small thing about the Missoulian failing to submit a bid that met the county’s specifications. D’oh!

As feeble as it is, the Missoulian’s whining about losing the county’s notices doesn’t really bother us. We’re more disturbed by how carelessly they dropped their guard on the editorial page. It’s one thing to flail in the face of unwelcome competition. It’s another altogether to crassly misuse the editorial voice of the paper to grind their commercial teeth. And it’s absolutely appalling that they would squander their claim to the public’s interest on such a lousy premise. That kind of sellout makes it harder for the rest of us to persuasively champion open government down the road.
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