Is Statehouse News Actually Declining, or Just Different?

There’s still plenty of coverage of governors and legislatures. But the void of newspaper reporters has been filled with partisan-slanted bloggers.
December 2018
Cartoon of reporters' hands with microphones.
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Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Back in the 1970s, I covered politics for Congressional Quarterly, or CQ as it was and still is known. Once I was assigned to write a little something about the reelection prospects of Nevada’s governor, “Big Mike” O’Callaghan. I had read enough about Nevada that I knew how to get started: I called Don Lynch, perhaps the best-connected political writer in the state.

I asked Lynch how it looked for O’Callaghan. Well, as a matter of fact, he said, he had just had dinner with the governor and he was convinced the election would be a cakewalk. I thanked him, and proceeded to write a story saying that O’Callaghan was headed for an easy victory. A while later, I picked up a clipping from Lynch’s paper, the Nevada State Journal, with the prominent headline: “BIG MIKE SAFE, CQ SAYS.” Lynch was attributing to me information that he himself had provided.

That experience reinforced a lesson that I had been learning in my few years on the politics beat: There was a big difference between what political writers knew and what they were willing to put in the paper under their own name.

In those days, newspapers all over the country had a Don Lynch, or someone very much like him. They ate, drank and gossiped with the most important political figures in their states, acquired inside information on what was about to happen -- and then kept most of it out of the paper. Ed Ziegner of The Indianapolis News was a good example. Every year, he hosted a dinner that was de rigueur for anybody who counted in Indiana politics. He could tell you who the strong candidates for governor were, months before the filing deadline. In the weeks prior to a general election, he could predict the vote in all the big counties with stunning accuracy. But to find out what he knew, you had to call him up and interview him on background. You didn’t learn much by reading his newspaper stories.

There are a few things we can say with confidence about the statehouse political reporters from a generation ago. One is that many of them valued their relationships with elected officials more than they valued the free flow of sensitive information. Another is that they viewed maintaining discretion as a cardinal rule and disdained colleagues who made a habit of violating it. A third is that most of them were not under any serious competitive pressure. Many were operating in monopoly newspaper markets.

I bring up all this ancient history because it is now commonly believed that media coverage of state government and politics has declined over the past few decades. That belief is true in some ways, but it is questionable in others.

If you look strictly at numbers, it’s hard to escape the notion that state-level journalism is in dire straits these days. To make the most obvious point, there aren’t as many news outlets as there were when the century began. Penelope Muse Abernathy, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reported earlier this year that more than 1,800 newspapers have merged or folded in America since 2004. Roughly 300 weeklies have started up in the same period, but that’s still a net decline of 1,500. Smaller rural communities have suffered the most; according to Abernathy, nearly 200 counties, home to more than 3 million people, have no daily or weekly newspaper.

But the most serious problem may not be the disappearance of news outlets; it may be the coverage that the surviving outlets aren’t providing. Four years ago, the Pew Research Center found that the number of reporters covering state capitols full time had declined by 35 percent since 2003; fewer than one-third of all newspapers and fewer than 15 percent of local TV stations sent anyone to cover their state capitol at all. Those numbers almost certainly have declined in the years since. The Columbia Journalism Review recently cited Oregon, where the Capitol press corps of 37 that was operating in 2005 has declined to 13. A veteran of the Arizona Legislature noted that the state Senate needed only six chairs to accommodate all the reporters covering the chamber.

The media outlets that cover state legislatures nearly all do it by sending in someone just for the duration of the legislative session; most of the time, it’s a young and fairly green reporter with limited knowledge of how legislatures work. “Many cycle through their states very quickly,” says Charlie Mahtesian, a former Governing colleague who now follows politics for Politico. “As a result, there isn’t always a deep command of state political culture.” To put it another way, there are very few Don Lynches or Ed Ziegners lurking in state capitol hallways anymore -- even in the most populous states.

 

So that’s the “declining media” side of the story. It’s quite real, and it’s a problem. But it’s not the only side of the story. The amount of space devoted to regular legislative events is a fraction of what it was half a century ago. But the major media outlets haven’t lost their appetite for political news; they just want it laced with juicy scandal.

Let’s take Missouri as an example. This past January, Gov. Eric Greitens disclosed that he had been involved in an extramarital affair with his hair stylist. He did that because he knew that within hours the St. Louis TV station KMOV would not only be reporting the affair but suggesting that Greitens had attempted to use blackmail to keep it quiet. From that day forward, the Missouri media jumped on the story. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a Greitens article in a prominent position virtually every day for weeks. In February, Greitens was indicted by a St. Louis grand jury. In June, facing impeachment, he resigned.

It’s comforting, in a weird way, to know that mainstream media outlets are still interested in philandering governors and sleazy cover-ups. But what if you just want to know the latest on the state budget negotiations or the omnibus transportation bill? In most states, you can’t depend on newspapers and TV stations for day-to-day coverage of that stuff. Still, you aren’t out of luck. In fact, more information is available to you today than there was in the “good old days.”

Let’s take Missouri again. If you’re so inclined, you can follow every minute of legislative floor action on streaming audio provided by the legislature itself. You can watch “This Week in Missouri Politics” on public TV. You can get informative and reasonably balanced coverage of state political news on online news sites like Missouri Times, PoliticMO, Show-Me Daily and Occasional Planet. As in every state, most of these sites come with their own ideological slant, some for progressives, some for libertarians and some for conservatives. You have to be a little careful which ones you look at. But overall, the state is awash in political coverage and analysis. You just don’t get it in the places where it used to be found.

Or consider Louisiana. There, as in 33 other states, you can watch the legislature on your computer. But you don’t have to do that. You can learn quite a bit about state politics by consulting The Hayride, a conservative-leaning blog that has been around for nearly a decade. This year, it was joined by another right-leaning blog, Louisiana Watchdog. If you’re looking for a more liberal slant, there’s The Bayou Brief, which carries news about Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and is sometimes featured in tweets from the governor himself. The people who produce these blogs and websites depend on access to politicians, just as the old-time newspaper reporters did. But they are a lot more willing to print what they know and accept the consequences. Aggressive competition pretty much requires that.

The bottom line is this: We have gone from a time in which most people knew a modest amount about government to one in which a small number of aficionados know a great deal and the rest know very little. For those who have an appetite for politics and the free time to pursue it, this is a journalistic Golden Age. For the ordinary voter who thinks about politics only at election time, it is more like a Dark Age. It’s just one of the many disconnects that have developed or deepened in America over the past generation.