Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Glimpses from the front lines of the decline of statehouse journalism
As the largest newspaper in Connecticut and the paper of record for the state's capital city, the Hartford Courant has long held pride of place in covering the doings up at the capitol. "It was the bulwark of legislative coverage," says Bob Douglas, who once covered the legislature for Connecticut Public Television and now oversees the House Democrats' press operation. "They still do a good job, but not the job they historically have done."
The Courant once had up to a dozen reporters covering state agencies, notes Tom Condon, a veteran writer and editor for the newspaper. It had people devoted to the environment, the state DOT, consumer protection, even the state's Properties Review Board, an agency that grew out of a 1970's Courant investigation of cronyism in state land leasing and purchases. Today, the newspaper has Jon Lender. "I think he's the best reporter in Connecticut," says Greg Hladky, the former capitol correspondent for the New Haven Register, "but one guy can't cover a government spending $17 or $18 billion. It's absurd."
One way to gauge the changes at the Courant is to look at the newspaper itself. In June last year, the paper-owned by the Tribune Company, which in December filed for bankruptcy protection-announced it would cut 60 jobs and a quarter of its news pages. A few months later, the Courant's ordinary coverage of state government-especially compared to what it was like 20 years ago-reflected the cutbacks.
On October 29, 2008, for instance, it ran two state-government-related articles: one on a tax-amnesty proposal by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and one on a pay maneuver by a state senator who serves as general counsel for the state's trash agency that allowed him to sidestep new state campaign donations restrictions. There was also an editorial about congestion on I-95 and the need for transportation alternatives in the state.
By contrast, on October 29, 1988, coverage of state issues included: a state effort to impose standards on Southern New England Telephone after it had allowed telephone service to deteriorate; an article on a fine on the state's lottery contractor; a piece about a state report on improper financial transactions at the state university's health center, which the state's attorney concluded did not contain enough material to determine criminal culpability; and a decision by the state's juvenile division that the state's top prosecutor of juveniles would not be disciplined for lending $2,000 to the owner of an adult bookstore.
Articles earlier in the week were in a similar vein: hardly earth-shattering, but they gave a casual reader a clear idea of what was going on in Hartford. On October 26: A report by a federal magistrate faulting the state's care of the retarded; a ruling by the state department of labor that striking workers at jai alai frontons were not entitled to unemployment benefits; a column on permanent incumbency in the general assembly. On October 27: a piece on public criticism of the state's Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities for "failing in its fundamental mission"; a series of articles on state legislative races; a piece on an expected school desegregation lawsuit against the state; a move by the state's attorney general and state consumer counsel to urge utility regulators to reject a power-company bid to create a separate natural gas utility.
For sheer cynical newsroom humor you probably can't beat the press room at a state capitol, which finds easy pickings in the ego, obfuscation and regular institutional gridlock to be found nearby. Over in the corner of the press room in Hartford, where the Associated Press and Hartford Courant desks meet, a partition and the sides of a pillar are papered with offhand quips from members of the press corps dating back a dozen years, transcribed on pages ripped out of reporters' notebooks. The custom began back in the mid-1990s, when an AP reporter whose desk backed up on that of Chris Keating, the Courant's longtime bureau chief, spent a year secretly taking down Keating's verbal sallies, then at the end of the year gave a dramatic reading to an enthralled press corps.
A Keating comment hanging on the wall gives an idea of what made him worth eavesdropping on. "Waiting for campaign reform," he said, "is like leaving the landing lights on for Amelia Earhart."
"All I want to do now," reads another by a reporter who has since left Hartford, "is punish these bastards until they pass a budget and go home."
"Good," one since-departed newsman told the spokesman for a gubernatorial candidate, "now we agree on something: You're full of s***."
"I wanna get enough information to shoot down this story I don't want to write," ran a comment by one reporter that would be instantly recognizable to any journalist juggling multiple demands from editors.
"Just give me something to make the needle bounce," one radio veteran said, "and I'm happy."
These days, newsroom cynicism is reserved as much for reporters themselves as for their subjects. "My theory," comments Paul Hughes of the Waterbury Republican-American, "is that some day, some group of editors will rediscover the legislature. They'll go, 'Jeez, there's a lot of money spent there! Who are these state legislators?'"
If you spend some time with the members of the state capitol press corps, you quickly realize they are not interchangeable. Not only does each reporter have a different style and audience, each has different interests and areas of expertise-which readers, legislators and other members of the press corps often come to depend on. In Hartford, for instance, Keith Phaneuf, the statehouse reporter for a small newspaper near Hartford, the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, is widely considered one of the most knowledgeable budget analysts in the building. "He knows more about the budget and the process than I do," says Denise Merrill, a Democrat who is slated to become House majority leader when the legislature convenes on January 7. "He's got people calling him all day long saying, 'The governor did this,' or 'This is what this number means.'" Phaneuf's finely detailed stories on health-care or social-services funding -- here is one example -- serve as a tutorial to the ins and outs of the budget and its impact on the lives of Connecticut residents.
Inevitably, then, as cutbacks sweep through statehouse news rooms, this expertise is being lost. When The News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois shuttered its capitol bureau in 2008, for instance, longtime reporter Kate Clements Cohorst left the business and went to work for the American Heart Association. With her went her precise knowledge of state pension and higher-education issues, both of them important to readers connected to the state university back home. "She was the best pension reporter, and was really good at honing the day's news explicitly for university readers," says Bethany Jaeger, who covers the legislature for Illinois Issues magazine. "I always read her stuff because she brought a twist to it, adding more to the pot and educating other reporters."
This sort of thing is not, by the way, limited to newspapers or radio. People who follow politics in Delaware were stunned last year when Celia Cohen, who ran the Delware Grapevine, an online site dedicated to political coverage of the state, announced she'd run out of the money to keep it going. Her investors had carried it for five years and it never turned a profit. "That was enough," she says. "You can't ask people to do more than that." But Cohen, who'd been a statehouse reporter for the Wilmington News Journal, has found that its disappearance has only made the holes in mainstream coverage of Delaware politics even more gaping. Though she only posted columns two or three times a week, she often carried stories her readers could find nowhere else. "There is a possibility that Grapevine is coming back," she says. "People are just desperate for political writing. People are holding their heads in their hands, saying, 'We need reporting here!'"
Laura Leslie, the veteran statehouse reporter for North Carolina Public Radio, makes an eating-your-seed-corn comment about all this. She points out that every statehouse newsroom also has some old-timer who has been willing to show new reporters the ropes -- even those who are just dropped in for a day or two on a specific story. In Raleigh, it's Matt Willoughby, a radio reporter for the North Carolina News Network. "Every time we have a parachuting journalist, he's the one who take them in, introduces them around, shows them where to get a pass, helps them learn how to find and follow bills," Leslie says. "And those are exactly the people taking buyouts."
It is probably fair to say that news-reading habits in Albany and around New York State changed forever on March 10, 2008. That was the day the story broke about the federal investigation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's involvement with a prostitution ring. For news junkies caught up in the hour-by-hour unfolding of the story over the next few weeks, "the blogs" suddenly became indispensable. They remain the first -- and often second, third, fourth and fifth -- daily stop for anyone trying to keep on top of New York City and state affairs.
Though there are plenty of online news sources in the state, when someone refers to "the blogs," they're generally talking about two of them: Elizabeth Benjamin's "The Daily Politics" for the New York Daily News (www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics) and the Albany Times-Union's group blog "Capitol Confidential" (blogs.timesunion.com/capitol), which, with the addition of the prolific Irene Jay Liu, has been giving Benjamin a run for her money.
There is a hothouse intensity to coverage of Albany that you won't really find elsewhere, but there are still plenty of other statehouse blogs run by journalists that are worth checking out. The "Capitolbeat" website maintained by the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors has a good list of them at http://capitolbeat.wordpress.com/ -- just scroll down and look along the right-hand column for "State Capitol Blogs Around the U.S."
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