Management & Labor

Death and Life in the Pressroom

If you want to know what the dying days of a journalistic era look like, mount the marble steps to the fourth floor of Connecticut's...
by | December 31, 2008
 

If you want to know what the dying days of a journalistic era look like, mount the marble steps to the fourth floor of Connecticut's grand old state capitol, climb the narrow stairway to the pressroom, and you'll see. Mostly, it looks like a mess.

In a large room whose inhabitants once joked that someone always had to be out reporting for everyone to fit inside, space is no longer an issue. The New York Times hasn't had anyone here for over a year and a half; its desk is piled high with mail for various Times reporters who have long since moved on to other beats. The vacated Norwich Bulletin desk has become a repository for stray press releases. The Greenwich Time and Fairfield Bulletin desk hosts a collection of Coke and Dr. Pepper bottles that await recycling. Telephone books, state budgets stretching back a decade or more, old campaign posters, front pages from newspapers that no longer keep a reporter at the capitol -- all are strewn around or line the walls.

The Hartford Courant, long considered the newspaper of record in Connecticut, still has a bureau in the pressroom, but where there used to be more Courant reporters than desks, there are now two desks for each reporter. A yellowing full-page ad from 1998, taped to a filing cabinet, features the Courant's then-four-member statehouse corps standing on the capitol steps with the tagline, "If It Matters to Connecticut, It's In the Courant." That seems almost like satire now, given that the Courant cut 60 jobs and the space it allots to all news by 25 percent a few months ago.

Perhaps the most alarming indignity for the capitol press corps came last March, when Greg Hladky, the sole correspondent for the New Haven Register, got a call from his editor telling him he'd been fired and wouldn't be replaced. The move deeply unsettled his colleagues: Hladky was a 20-year veteran of the pressroom with a profound understanding of state government. And if he could go, so could they.

But if you want a glimpse of what the future of statehouse journalism might be, walk down to the foot of the stairs and peek into the stark but much neater pressroom annex. There you will find Christine Stuart, whose Web site, Connecticut News Junkie, has become a daily first stop for many in state government; one colleague calls her "a first-class, hyper-obsessed legislative reporter."

The site itself brings in little income, so Stuart has worked out a deal with an online newspaper, the New Haven Independent , to provide some of the coverage lost when Hladky was fired. She has broken significant stories -- a prisoner's hunger strike, a breakdown in the state's voter registration system -- that had gone ignored by her colleagues. "I want to cover what isn't being covered by mainstream media," she says. "And there's a lot of that today; there's so much that falls through the cracks."

Good as she is, no one pretends that Christine Stuart can single-handedly make up for what's missing. "A person who's operating a news Web site can't possibly compensate for the loss of a bureau, nor should our society expect them to," says Andy Fleischmann, a Democratic House member from West Hartford. "You need the people who are given the time and resources to do the reporting. One person cannot make up the ground that's lost when five are laid off."

But what about five Christine Stuarts in one pressroom, all of them determined to provide what the best newspapers used to offer. Could that be a successful model for high-quality statehouse journalism? That's the question that countless people in state government -- legislators, agency heads and lobbyists, as well as reporters -- have begun to ask, but no one is yet able to answer.

Capitol Losses

What's happening in Hartford is happening in a lot of places these days. Newspapers and radio stations are either abandoning or slashing their presence in Albany, Trenton, Springfield, Denver, Tallahassee, Austin, Sacramento, Oklahoma City -- you name the capitol, the press corps is shrinking. Newspapers that once sent five people to cover state government are down to two and are pruning the space they get on the page; smaller papers have bailed out entirely; commercial radio is following the route television took years ago, parachuting reporters in for only the most attention-grabbing stories.

The move to online coverage is well underway, and the assumption in Hartford and elsewhere is that it will eventually provide a workable system, but at the moment the ground that's been lost -- in the investigations not launched, the tips not followed up, the decades of knowledge and experience that have walked out the door with buyouts or pink slips in hand -- has yet to be regained.

At a gathering in November of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, a group of journalists who cover state government, attendees were met with the news that two of their board members had lost their reporting jobs and that, in a bid to boost sagging revenues, the board was considering opening up membership to lobbyists and other non-journalists who write regularly about state government. Not surprisingly, the suggestion provoked a debate that was both heated and sorrowful.

"I haven't seen the emerging model for state coverage yet," says Chris Bigelow, a college librarian who maintains a widely read public-affairs blog called Connecticut Local Politics under the name Genghis Conn. "There's still a big gap in coverage."

What's especially disturbing, says Chris Healy, chairman of Connecticut's Republican Party, is the slow disappearance of the analytical role played by knowledgeable reporters in a period when the noise of politics -- both in elections and surrounding policy -- is greater than ever. "The real challenge for our political system is, in a time when there are endless information sources and ways to access information, we now find ourselves with no filter, no third-party assessment of what's really happening," he argues. "What you're increasingly left with is what's being generated by partisans or bloggers doing thin, small analysis of what's really going on. It tends to benefit the permanent government by shielding it from inspection."

Among the reporters remaining at the Connecticut state capitol these days, there is an air of beleaguered intensity. With so many of their former colleagues gone, they are charged not only with covering the governor, legislature and state agencies, but in many cases, politics and elections as well. They barely have time to keep up with events, let alone do the sort of digging or extensive explanatory pieces that once were staples of capitol journalism.

"It's like some French Foreign Legion outpost up there," says Colin McEnroe, a former capitol correspondent who who was recently fired from his job hosting a daily radio talk show and writes a weekly column for the Courant. "Everyone around you is dead and you've got six bullets left and 20 people running at you."

Ignorance Without Ink

The extent of the problem was brought home last fall, when the Courant raised eyebrows around the capitol with a poll it had commissioned on an upcoming ballot measure. Every 20 years, voters in the state decide whether to hold a constitutional convention -- no small matter -- and the Courant wanted to gauge support for the idea. To general dismay among political leaders, the results, published five days before the election, showed a small majority favoring a convention because it could amend the constitution to allow citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

But it wasn't the big picture that aroused the most comment. It was a paragraph buried deep in the story. A mere 5 percent of voters knew that the legislature could propose amendments even without a convention; only one-third realized that the legislature would control the convention's makeup, rules and subject matter. With the election fast approaching, in other words, voters were about to cast their ballots with a stunning degree of ignorance about an important issue of governance.

Given their stretched resources, the Courant and other newspapers and media outlets around the state had given the ballot measure only sporadic attention -- and it was this that most irritated legislators and others. "We have laws in this country regarding standards of conduct for lawyers and for doctors," says Representative Fleischmann. "We don't have anything comparable for publishers or journalists, but if we did, it would seem to me this would be a case either of negligence or malpractice." In the end, most people got their information from advertising on television and radio put up by the competing sides, and on Election Day, voters opted not to call a convention.

There remains, of course, the question of whether, even if traditional newspapers restored their capitol coverage, many citizens would want to read it. Newspaper editors, faced with shrinking budgets and the need to cut staff, have long suspected that their readers are less interested in coverage of state government than in either national politics or local affairs. The advent of online metrics suggests they're right.

"With a few exceptions," says Paul Bass, editor of the online New Haven Independent, "we can usually count on stories about state government -- even scoops and breaking news -- capturing fewer than half the viewers our local government stories receive." This is true even though state government, he believes, has come to affect readers' lives more directly than either the federal government or their local governments. "State government seems so distant, and the important stuff is a little dry," he says.

In other words, the real problem may lie as much on the demand side as the supply side. If the supply were better tailored to 21st-century tastes and reading habits, would the customers come back? No one is really sure. "What everyone is trying to figure out is, are we in a moment of pure transition on the way to figuring out the model and regaining the glory days of statehouse and political coverage," asks James Pindell, the national managing editor of the Politicker Web sites, which cover state and local politics in 17 states, "or are we at the beginning of the end? Of course, people will continue to cover state government, but the question is, Who? And how many? And how good will they be?"

Journalists are not the only group that has been discomfited by the changes sweeping the news industry. Far from reveling in the press' hard times, the legislators, lobbyists and political operatives who often joust with it find the shifting ground under their feet unsettling.

Mike Lawlor, a Democrat who chairs the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee, notes that while some legislators mostly complain about not getting their names in the newspaper anymore, "there are also curious, thoughtful, sophisticated people who are trying to accomplish things, and they're frustrated that their constituents don't know what's happening at the Capitol anymore, and they can't get them to care." He sees in the rise of the Internet and the loosening grip of newspapers a twin challenge for legislators, because it's created two distinct groups of constituents: those comfortable online, and those comfortable only with newspapers, radio and television.

"It's changed how I do advocacy," he says. "Twenty years ago, if I couldn't get reporters to write about it, no one knew it had happened. Well, not so much anymore. Now everything is available. So if you want the relatively well-educated, tech-savvy people to know something, you know which blog to send a link to, and you can generate public opinion starting from that." But he represents a district in East Haven, which is part of the New Haven Register's circulation area and therefore no longer served by a print capitol reporter, and he sees the direct cost. "People who don't go online and just read the newspaper, they're out of the loop," Lawlor says. "They don't know what's going on."

The irony in all this, as Lawlor suggests, is that for a small coterie of interested parties, now actually is a boom time for state government news. Spurred by the inattention and over-stretched resources of traditional news providers, information about legislatures is bursting online. There are straight-ahead national news efforts such as Stateline.org; the Politicker sites; and the more ideologically slanted sites in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico run by the left-leaning Center for Independent Media.

Digital Futures

These three organizations follow different economic models, and one of the big questions facing the news industry is which will prove sustainable over the long term. Stateline is the longest-lived of the three, started in 1999 by the Pew Charitable Trusts and now a project of the Pew Center on the States. It covers policy and trends in all 50 states; it is overseen by a group of veteran journalists, and its reporting is done from Washington, D.C., by a blend of veterans and younger reporters. The Center for Independent Media is foundation-funded and is also based in Washington, D.C.; unlike Stateline, its state sites are reported and edited on-scene. They are finding they need both experienced reporters and younger bloggers.

"The more we do this, the more we realize you need people who have come of age on the Web," says Jefferson Morley, the national editor. "Bloggers have a much more acute sense of timeliness that really has been lost in daily and weekly journalism -- the Web people want to turn something around within the hour."

Perhaps the most-watched experiment is Politicker. Its sites are owned by Jared Kushner, publisher of the New York Observer, who has ambitions -- now delayed -- of opening sites in all 50 states, driven by issue-oriented advertising. "We view ourselves as something of a new Associated Press," Observer Media president Bob Sommer said in November. "We're able to put up stories almost immediately; we report live and much more quickly than what we see elsewhere." The reporters for Politicker tend to be young and poorly paid, and usually work from their cars; they also have established a reputation for being among the few reporters in the room when a politician says or does something of note.

But the national sites are only the beginning. There are local news sites, such as the advertising-driven Rio Grande Guardian in Texas and the nonprofit New Haven Independent, whose journalists cover the capitol that their local newspapers abandoned. There are subscription sites -- such as Texas' Quorum Report, or Capitol Fax Blog in Illinois -- for political insiders willing to fork over $250 to $350 per year. There are reporters who blog, legislators who blog, lobbyists who blog and, of course, bloggers who blog. There are reporters who regularly Twitter events they're covering. There are even some excellent Web sites maintained by newspapers, such as Liz Benjamin's "The Daily Politics" in the New York Daily News, the Sacramento Bee's "Capitol Alert," and Betsy Russell's "Eye on Boise" for the Spokesman Review of Spokane, Washington.

There is no question that putting coverage online offers opportunities that would have been unthinkable. Ryan Teague Beckwith, who maintains the Raleigh News & Observer's "Under the Dome" site online, built a network of capitol sources through Facebook that was "like an army of i-reporters -- only they don't want credit or even their names used, they just want to tell you stuff," according to Eric Frederick, the paper's online editor.

The speed required to keep such a site going, with the constant updates and new postings that draw readers throughout the day, clearly affects the way reporters work. "During the session, I'm reporting stuff right as it happens," says Russell. "You can stay with what's going on up-to-the-minute -- it's added a real sense of urgency. I feel like I'm always on deadline during the session. But I see that as a good thing. Instead of sitting on a good story until it hits the paper, when I see something happen I get it out right away." Bethany Jaeger, whose blog for the venerable monthly Illinois Issues draws a big part of the magazine's online readership, says simply, "It's taken on a life of its own. You have to be everywhere now."

Blurring Lines

In the end, though, the debate inevitably returns to the broader question of whether the new methods will ever be able to fully restore the overall quality and breadth of statehouse coverage. Even some of the most creative practitioners of the new techniques are skeptical. James Pindell of Politicker argues that the online sites have changed the nature of coverage, but so far have not necessarily improved it. "The hope has been that this would create better journalism," he says, "but we just haven't seen it yet. The hour-by-hour narrative has expanded, but it lends itself to partisan blogs and an over-emphasis on process and speculation."

As this happens, the line between reporters and sources is growing more and more blurry. Along with the blogging journalists, legislators and lobbyists are taking their causes online, developing blogs and other new tools aimed both at informing the public and swaying it. In Connecticut, says incoming House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, the House Democratic caucus is thinking of revamping its entire media operation to respond.

"The burden is going to be much more on us to make our points," she says. "Before, with the capitol press corps, you knew who to talk to, you knew how to get the message out there. Now the onus is on us, and I think it'll become more partisan, because inevitably both parties will have their own spin machine. You won't have that relatively unbiased medium that could filter this with some knowledge and expertise; instead, the public is going to have to sort out what's true and what isn't. Something will probably replace it, but right now, I don't know what it is."

NOTE: This online version has been updated to reflect different numbers from those that appeared in the print version for the number of jobs and space alloted to news that were cut by the Hartford Courant and to reflect the firing of Colin McEnroe from his job hosting a radio talk show.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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