Can Online News Outlets Help Fill Statehouse Reporting's Void?

Some worry that the drop in the number of reporters covering state capitals and the slow death of print media are making public officials and institutions less accountable.
by | October 2013
 

This month, the American Journalism Review is taking a cue from its brethen in the media and ceasing print publication to instead become an online-only operation. The news may barely register for readers in places as diverse as Birmingham, Ala.; Cleveland; Detroit; New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Syracuse, N.Y.—cities where newspapers have already reduced or eliminated their print and home delivery schedules.

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A casualty of the changes at the AJR is the loss of its one-of-a-kind, 15-year tracking census of statehouse reporting. At this time, there are no plans to do another. The census documented a 30 percent decline in the number of statehouse reporters working in the 50 states, from a high point of 524 in 2003 to only 355 by 2009.

The declines continue. In 2012, the American Society of News Editors estimated that newspapers had shed 28 percent of their staff since 2001. In this year’s “State of the News Media” report, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed to “shrinking reporting power” as central to its concern that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.”

But not everyone believes the news situation is so bleak. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias faulted Pew for making “no mention of the Web’s speed, range and depth, or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism.” He says that “despite business difficulties and cutbacks, the American news consumer has never had it so good.”

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Steven Waldman, a consultant to Pew, countered that the abundance of media outlets is exceeded only by the increasing scarcity of local accountability reporting. Today’s news organizations, he wrote, “have less time for enterprise journalism of the sort that anticipates problems and uncovers information that those in power want to conceal.”

Many news organizations have not given up and are placing bets on their future. Independently or in partnership, an evolving number of media outlets have emerged to fill the void, including The Texas Tribune, Crosscut and a loosely knit consortium known as Local Independent Online News Publishers.

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In a relentless digital news cycle, the Pew report laments, public officials increasingly get to determine how events are covered. “As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such. Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news.”

Some more jaded public information officers might argue that’s a good thing. But most PIOs I know are not nearly that cynical. They appreciate the tension in the give and take with reporters, and they recognize the role of the media in holding public officials and institutions accountable.

The decline of the media’s statehouse presence increases the risk of complacency. Without reporters walking the halls, the question of whether something would pass the front-page test begins to lose its meaning.

An environment that lends itself to liberty and license for policymakers also shifts responsibility to government to disseminate information effectively, retain public records responsibly and avoid the expediency of playing loose with the law or the books.

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