When the public notice is the story

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A public notice about vacancies on a flood protection authority sounds about as mundane as the legals page can get. But for The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., the notice not only generated a Page 1 story but became the illustration as well.

The Aug. 21 story explained what the notice really meant: Potentially, new members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East could affect the balance of power on the authority as well as the future of a massive lawsuit the authority has filed.

"Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will have its first opportunity to directly interfere with a massive lawsuit claiming oil and gas companies contributed to the destruction of Louisiana's coast next month, when a nominating committee considers whether to reappoint key members of the flood control board that filed the suit," the story by Jeff Adelson began.

The lawsuit alleges that about 100 energy companies have contributed to long-term environmental damage to the coastline, including increased risk of flooding and storm surge. The authority was created as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was ostensibly non-political. Opponents, who include the Jindal, have called it a counter-productive sideshow.

As many as four positions on the nine-member board may become vacant, including those of the president and vice president. The political ramifications of the public notice, then, became apparent. So instead of a more traditional collection of headshots or file photos, the logical art was a piece of the public notice itself.

"I guess we felt like the public notice – even the headshots involved would have been familiar. The public notice was essentially what prompted the story, what the story was about," said Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate.

The legals section of a newspaper can be a gold mine for reporters who know that a bid notice or a call for applications can be a tipoff of something much bigger. Readers, too, may spot a public notice and alert reporters and editors that its content raises questions, Kovacs said.

With only four months on the job, Kovacs said he doesn't know if The Advocate has ever used a public notice as art before. But it could happen again.

"If it's a good way to illustrate the story then we might do it again, because you're always looking for a good way to illustrate the story," Kovacs said.

"It does underscore the importance of publication of public notices, in terms of informing the public what the government's up to."

Jane Nicholes, a former editorial writer for the Press-Register of Mobile, is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Email her at jnicholes@gmail.com.

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