Government Uncovered

Yesterday's Washington Post was filled with stories about the decline of the newspaper business, with two stories touching directly on state and local government ...
by | March 2, 2009

Yesterday's Washington Post was filled with stories about the decline of the newspaper business, with two stories touching directly on state and local government coverage.

Howard Kurtz, the paper's media reporter, offered the general roundup, focusing on the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News and the likely demise of the San Francisco Chronicle. He quotes Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper about the impact of the former:

"Even when they were uncovering corruption in the city, even when they were embarrassing us or causing us discomfort, they were making the city better," he says. "It's a huge loss."

David Simon, a creator of The Wire and former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, decries the loss of reporters and institutional knowledge at his old paper, part of the bankrupt Tribune chain. Simon says that in his day, he carried around the number of the chief judge of the Maryland District Court, who would warn recalcitrant police officials that they'd be held in contempt if they didn't quickly surrender reports that were open to the public.

Simon says that the city's police are now rarely challenged to present even basic information, such as the names of officers involved in shootings.

The commissioner was allowed to stand on half-truths. Why? Because the Baltimore Sun's cadre of police reporters -- the crime beat used to carry four and five different bylines -- has been thinned to the point where no one was checking Bealefeld's statements or those of his surrogates.

Marc Fisher, a metro columnist for the paper, travels down to Richmond to check on the state of the press corps at the capitol. He also finds fewer reporters on the beat and plenty of stories getting less coverage.

Fisher makes the point that people who follow the legislature for a living have access to more information than ever. A Post editor claims that it offers more coverage of Richmond and Annapolis than in the pre-Internet era, but mostly on blogs.

Critics say that shift serves only the elite that's intently interested in state news, not the broader audience. "The insiders are still getting a full report on the blogs, but the rest of us see only what we want to see instead of the news we need to see," says Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia and a former politics reporter for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

Governing's Rob Gurwitt wrote a feature about the impact of declining capital coverage in our January issue.

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