Public Records in Newspapers

I live in a town with a population of 100,000+. The local paper used to print all kinds of public records, such as arrests, divorces, marriages, court results, and bankruptcies. No more. On the other hand, I look at the website of my hometown (population 20,000+) newspaper and it’s all still listed. My question is: which method is more common, and is there a good reason (besides those items not generating income for the paper) for not listing those records anymore?

I believe the deal is that the public notices must be published in some local paper, not necessarily the one you read. Sometimes, a city will show its displeasure with a paper by moving all of the public notice advertising to a different paper.

Well, there is only one local paper. They do have one of those “Ask Me” columns, but I figured that I’d only get their version of the truth.

BTW, I was hoping others would chime in with what is published in their papers, just to see what’s “normal”.

There is a difference between public records in a newspaper and legal notices.

Strictly speaking “Public records” are kept by the government entity and not by the newspaper. The orignal record of the divorce or the criminal arrest is kept by the clerk of court and not by newspaper. The stuff that the newspaper publishes about divorces and whatnot is what the paper chooses to take from the government clerk’s public record and put in the paper. If the paper wants to publish it the government cannot restrict the paper from doing so. Whether the paper wants to bother with all that info is up to the paper and not the government.

Legal notices are usually classified advertisements placed by a party to a court case to satisfy a legal requirement. Typically the party hasn’t been able to serve a subpena on a the opposing party so they put in in the paper instead. They are also notices from city planning/zoning boards/alderman, etc concerning upcoming proposals or pending legislation and inviting public comments about the item. What paper they get put in depends on advertising rates and whether the paper has sufficient circulation to satisfy the requirements for notice by publication.

The legal notices (that is the technical term) are generally buried in the classified ad section. They’re published to satisfy the pubic-notice requirements that some governments have under various open-meeting statutes. They don’t have to be featured prominently; mere publication satisfies the requirement.

Vital statistics information, like births, deaths, and marriages might be found in the regional “neighborhood” sections that some papers have. In large cities, it might not be practical to list every birth, death, and marriage that happens, so newspapers sort them by the area where they take place. (The obituaries and wedding announcements are paid advertising arranged by the funeral home or family of the bride or groom.)

Some newspapers have chosen to drop unpaid vital statistics information for privacy reasons; I can think of many reasons why someone (or their family) would have problems with this information being made so public, and my communications law professors cited identity theft and other crimes being a reason why this information should be kept out of the press, except where it has news value.


In my hometown, the legal notices aren’t in the regular paper, but, rather, in one of the “free” publications that is distributed through the community.

MsRobyn said:

They might not like it, but doesn’t the word “public” in “public records” mean just that? Anybody can go down to the Police Dept and look through the call sheets, for instance. Having that info in the paper doesn’t really expose anything new.

The difference here is that many people read the newspaper, but few will trouble themselves to go down to the copshop or the courthouse and look through public records, even though they could do so. And some, like birth and death records, aren’t released to anyone without a direct relationship to the person involved. Thus, I can’t waltz into the Hall of Records where you were born and request your birth certificate or your great-grandmother’s death certificate.


True, you won’t be able to get a Birth Certificate or a Death Certificate, and those records aren’t released to just anybody…but the information is available to anybody. Maybe I wouldn’t get my hands on how much you weighed at birth, or the exact time you were born, but I would be able to see where and on what date you were born. And I wouldn’t have to waltz in, either…I could do so while doing the polka. :smiley:

Whatever floats your boat. I’m more of a minuet girl, myself. :slight_smile:


In the old days that was true but in light of privacy concerns and stalking cases that isn’t necessarily the case anymore.

For instance, Court papers for divorce cases used to contain the parties’ SSNs and birthdates. Now, such information is usually redacted, and properly so, for non-parties who request public record copies of the court papers. Police reports of closed cases are also public records and such identifying information is similarly, and properly, redacted.

In my state and I’m sure others, the larger cities have legal newspapers that only publish items that are required by law to be published, such as foreclosure notices.

The circulation of these papers are very small, usually in the hundreds as compared to perhaps several hundred thousand of the regular paper. You sometimes see these required notices in the regular paper but that’s the exception. Because of the low circulation and high cost, about the only subscribers
are some real estate lenders, attorneys etc.

Thanks for all the info…but my question was about “public” notices, not “legal”. Here, the legal notices are in the regular paper…it’s just the public records that they quit publishing. I’ll go away with the opinion that they did that only because it wasn’t making them any money.

I don’t believe in the state of California that vital records are published in any paper in any jurisdiction. There aren’t any pubilshed now in Los Angeles County.

The state of California requires a certificate for a birth, death, fetal death, marriage, or dissolution. There are over a million of these events each year statewide.

IAANE. And as an editor for a small town daily newspaper in Oregon, I can’t pretend to speak for the industry, but can share our particular circumstances.
First, we are the newspaper of record for our county. That means that all public bodies in the county — including the county itself, cities, port districts, school boards, public utility districts, soil and water conservation districts, local improvement districts — are required to use us for their paid official notices. That includes such items as requests for bids, and notices of tax delinquencies in preparation for foreclosure proceedings.
Second, Oregon is an open meetings state. Any public body must notify local media 24 hours in advance of any meeting, including time and place of meeting, the official meeting agenda and whether or not an executive session is scheduled before, after, or in conjunction with the meeting. If there is to be an executive session, than the public body must identify the purpose of the executive session, by reference to the specific subsection of the Oregon Revised Statute authorizing such a session. [In Oregon, the public is excluded executive sessions, but reporters are allowed to attend, though them may not report on the discussions therein. It does give reporters invaluable background, and often leads them to find a way to get the information from an on-the-record source. Public bodies are not allowed to vote on any item during executive session, so often the regular meeting will end, the body will adjourn to executive session, discuss a sensitive matter extensively, then reconvene in open session to vote on the issue. Of course, the public has all gone home, leaving only the reporter to witness the open session, and only the vote to report. The state of Washington, just next door, bans reporters from executive sessions as well, which must not be nearly as much fun.] These meeting notices are news items, and the bodies don’t pay for them. Should they fail to notify us 24 hours in advance, though, so that we have a chance to get they risk
Third, we report, as a matter of course, items on logs of the city police, county sheriff, and the local fire and rescue district (which operates the local ambulance service). Nearly everything that makes it into the log, makes it into our newspaper in an abbreviated form. We include such minor items as tire slashings, thefts, and reports of shoplifting, along with arrests. For those over 18 arrested on a felony charge, we include the name and address. The address is for clarification purposes, as we sometimes have more than one person of the same name in the area. We also report ambulance runs, though the style has changed drastically since the advent of HIPPA rules and regulations. Previously, we’d write something like “12:45 a.m. Ambulance transport of resident in the 300 block of Maple Street to the hospital on a possible heart attack.” Since HIPPA, we write “12:45 a.m. person with possible heart attack transported.” We consider all of the above bona fide local news, and the “For the record” section is widely and closely read.
Fourth, we do record births, though those circumstances have changed considerably in the past decade. Previously, the birth reports were routinely supplied by the hospital, and we’d run them just as routinely. Once a month, the hospital would buy a nice ad with photos of all the babies born there in the previous month. Then there were a few well-publicized kidnappings of newborns from hospitals, and the hospitals stopped supplying us with birth information. These days, we run only those submitted by parents. Though it’s a free service, we seldom have more than one submitted per month, when we know the hospital averages one per day.
Fifth, we do record engagements, weddings and anniversaries. Again, it’s free, and we’ll even run a photo. We do tend to limit anniversaries generally to 25 and 50 years, and in five-year increments after 50, and we’ll run both current and original wedding photos next to each other. It’s a very popular feature.
Sixth, we do free obituaries. Being free, we reduce the flowery ones to a standard form, omitting excessive verbiage about how the departed is now walking with Jesus, and how much they will be missed. We are increasingly a rarity in this department. Most newspapers now charge for obits routinely. We do get a few paid ones, when the family wants all the flowery stuff left in.

I hope that helps.

The Knoxville News Sentinel publishes such legal notices as delinquent tax sale notices which require a wide distribution.
There is also a small public notices paper (forgot title) for legally required items such a those required for probate cournt.

Generally speaking small town papers publish the marriages, divorces, births, driver’s licenses, etc. because everyone knows everyone else and it really interests the readership.

However, as the community gets larger that closeness ceases to exist, most larger papers don’t want to waste the space.

The smaller the paper, the more likely you are to see them.

Regarding legal notices, that is one of the biggest money makers for small papers. To be named the “Newspaper of record” for a county and/or town is a major windfall for a community newspaper.

If you can’t tell, I have been the editor of small town newspapers in my life.