The Disappearing Statehouse Reporter
The number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent since 2003, according to a new study published by the Pew Research Center. This decline in statehouse coverage parallels a 30 percent drop in newspaper staffing overall between 2003 and 2012.
Pew’s findings offer clues to help us understand the broader implications of journalism’s ongoing transformation. From a personal perspective after more than 30 years in state government communications, there is a dramatic loss of diversity in capitol news coverage. Despite the proliferation of digital outlets, professional publications and an endless stream of tweets and posts from the newsmakers themselves, the range and richness of stories detailing state government activity continues to deteriorate.
As the Pew study points out, papers like the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times that once fought for scoops are instead teaming up to cover the legislature. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Competition doesn’t always lead to better quality, especially when neither side can put up a good fight on its own. With less than one third of the 801 daily newspapers in the U.S. now sending someone to state capitol buildings, there aren’t enough eyes to watch even a fraction of what’s happening. In Sacramento, there is only one statehouse reporter for every 866,371 Californians.
As fewer reporters and editors try to do more with less, stories tends to focus on the issues designed to attract the most digital viewers, which often means the most controversial ones. Coverage now centers on the issues that divide us, while crucial policy debates on issues that affect our daily lives go unreported. And, typically, the political parties are more than happy to oblige, knowing that the stories will fire up the bases. However, those in the middle of the political spectrum consequently tend to only see dysfunction.
What happens in state legislatures is too important not to be monitored by independent observers. It forces legislatures to provide their own “coverage” and allows partisan and advocacy groups to drive public policy discussion. And, in particular, investigative and entrepreneurial journalism suffers. Reporters generally aren’t given time to put substantive effort into delving into policy issues or getting into the mechanics of legislation.
Who suffers from the lack of coverage? It’s the public at large – the body politic. The media business as it is shaped today requires profits, so a decision not to cover state legislatures is an economic one. Media consultants and many editors frankly don’t see the value.
This loss of storytellers in our statehouses may just be another blow to a dying patient, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. People and policy benefit from independent, non-partisan viewpoints. The Pew report demonstrates a significant rise in non-profit journalism that focuses on state government. These entrepreneurs understand there is an audience – and a need – to shine a spotlight on a state’s three branches of government. For a better representative democracy, the hope is that they can succeed.