Politics

Bright Spots in the Sad State of Statehouse Reporting

The number of statehouse reporters has drastically declined, but journalists see reasons for optimism.
by | March 1, 2015
Nigel Jaquiss, an investigative reporter with the alternative Willamette Week
Nigel Jaquiss, an investigative reporter with the alternative Willamette Week recently helped prompt the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber. Willamette Week

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the media business knows that the number of journalists covering state government has been shrinking for at least a decade.

It’s not just reporting positions that are being lost; also lost is a wealth of institutional memory, as well as traditions that have supported strong state capitol reporting for decades. But despite the depressing news about the shrinkage of reporting staffs, a few developments suggest reason for optimism.

The most recent assessment of the size of the state capitol press corps was published in July 2014 by the Pew Research Center. The report found that the number of newspaper reporters covering state capitols declined by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. Less than one-third of newspapers today assign even one reporter to the statehouse -- although that’s better than the rate for local TV news stations, which is just 14 percent. Pew found that there are 1,592 statehouse reporters today, of which fewer than half are employed full-time on the state capitol beat; they range from 53 in Texas to two in South Dakota.

The makeup of the press corps has changed as well. Non-traditional media -- including non-profit outlets, insider publications and ideologically driven websites -- have expanded to fill some of the void created by decline in newspaper reporters. Non-traditional outlets employ 126 full-time statehouse reporters, which is about one of every six full-time reporters. Meanwhile, journalism students now account for 14 percent of the overall state capitol press corps.

Interviews for this article with about two dozen current and former statehouse journalists turned up a number of factors that are affecting the press corps’ ability to cover state government.

Shrinkage of the “news hole.”

With fewer reporters on staff, newspapers (and other media) are devoting less space to covering state government.

The reporters who are left are often spread thin.

Journalists say it is not uncommon for political reporters to be required to post multiple times a day, to aggregate other media coverage and to meet quotas for engaging with readers and commenters. This leaves less time for enterprise reporting.

A loss of institutional memory.

The journalists who have left the state capitol beat, whether voluntarily or not, have tended to be those with the most experience.

“As news outlets fire older, more expensive reporters and replace them with young reporters, they sometimes sacrifice depth and relevant knowledge about process and policy,” said Nicholas Confessore, a New York Times reporter who spent several years covering Albany, N.Y. “It takes two or three legislative sessions to begin to understand the tricks and dodges of the budget process, or where lawmakers hide pork-barrel grants.”

A tendency toward pack journalism.

With a smaller number of reporters and outlets operating in state capitols, journalists sometimes focus on the most basic stories.

“Sometimes, statehouse reporters all tend to do the same story -- the news of the day,” one observer in Mississippi said. “That can seem a little crazy, because in any statehouse, the ground is just littered with stories.”

The rise of click-driven journalism.

“You can just write about outrageous bills that are never going to pass and play the legislature for laughs” -- thus attracting lots of clicks from the public -- “instead of trying to write about the policy options on things that might actually happen,” one reporter said. Richard A. Lee, a former journalist in Trenton, N.J., has studied the issue in his new career as an academic at St. Bonaventure University. Lee said that “journalists no longer have time to thoroughly check allegations and that they are under intense pressure to post stories quickly and frequently, and to post stories that attract web viewers. As a result, negative attacks and details of candidates' personal lives find their way into news stories more often than before.”

Government beats are increasingly seen as stepping stones, not destinations.

“There are reporters for whom the state government beat is merely a stop along the journey, rather than the pinnacle of one's career -- an honor bestowed upon veteran reporters who proved their mettle,” said one Indiana journalist.

The media vacuum has encouraged controversial new entrants.

Some of these newcomers have an ideological lean. Read Daniel C. Vock’s piece on how a growing share of statehouse reporting now comes from conservative groups, blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy.

A separate but similar category consists of strongly partisan bloggers who comment on state politics but don’t work as on-site reporters per se.

Another category consists of “news” outlets run by the government itself. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, recently took heat for unveiling what appeared to be a government-run news site. But for small newspapers and TV stations without a dedicated staff in the state capitol, taking offerings from the governor can be tempting.

The result of all these new sources of media has been public confusion, some journalists say. “Most ordinary news consumers have no clue as to how credible a given source might be,” said one Indiana journalist.

The balance of power increasingly tilts toward politicians.

All these changes have had an impact on the behavior of politicians, often in ways that lessen public accountability, current and former state capitol journalists say. Some journalists said they’re noticing governors and legislative leaders holding press conferences more sporadically than they used to. Some said responses to freedom-of-information requests are being dragged out longer than they used to be or that gubernatorial schedules aren’t being released in advance. In some legislatures, lawmakers feel free to hammer out deals behind closed doors rather than air differences in public hearings.

“The more savvy politicians are trying to bypass the remaining reporters, going to friendly homes on talk radio or blogs to move items and get the spin they want,” said one observer in Mississippi.

“The government can use the Internet and social networks to bypass the scrutiny of the media and get information directly to the public and with their own spin,” added Lee, the St. Bonaventure professor. Chris Christie and his team are “masters” at this, Lee said.

Similarly, a smaller, weaker press corps can be more susceptible to news manufactured by partisan warriors.

“The relatively small number of journalists means that the principals we cover tend to drive the news cycle,” said Steve Mistler, politics and government reporter for the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. “That’s another way of saying that watchdog coverage is sometimes preempted by bombastic press releases and media events designed to generate headlines by partisans. The result is that sometimes the coverage serves the people we cover more than it does the readers.”

Mistler said he has little doubt that state lawmakers are “less accountable than they were 10 or 15 years ago. What’s worse is that the partisan operatives are well aware of these weaknesses, and they work tirelessly to exploit it.”

Journalists noted a few cases in which old-school reporting could have headed off subsequent problems.

In Oregon, for example, more attentive policy coverage might have helped forestall the “fiasco” of the state Affordable Care Act website, said Peter Wong, the Salem bureau reporter for the Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group. While lots of factors contributed to the website’s implosion, Wong said, “there was too much trust and too few questions asked by the media or lawmakers about how state agencies were going to build an ambitious computer program given past failures on large-scale IT projects. The Cover Oregon website became news only after it failed to work.”

Meanwhile, an Idaho reporter suggested that greater scrutiny early on could have found red flags about the personal history of GOP state Rep. Mark Patterson. Patterson had won in a low-profile campaign but resigned his seat in 2013 after it came out that he had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit forcible rape in Florida in 1974. The takeaway from this episode, the Idaho reporter said, is that “significant news coverage at the time he ran for office could have perhaps revealed more to the voters about whom they were electing. But no one was doing that.”

There are some reasons for optimism, though. Despite the concerns outlined above, current and former journalists agreed that a lot of good work is still going on in state capitals. For starters, some states appear to have avoided shrinkage pretty well.

Tim Murphy, a veteran journalist at the Providence Journal, said that “there's still a pretty robust media contingent covering state government in Rhode Island -- two of the three local TV stations have reporters who regularly cover state government news. A couple of the smaller dailies have semi-regular staffers at the statehouse, and Rhode Island Public Radio has a reporter who covers the statehouse.”

Similarly, “Albany is probably luckier than most state capitols,” said Confessore of The New York Times. “Because of the proximity to the media hub in New York, Albany gets close and careful coverage from major news outlets. The total size of the legislative press corps has shrunk, but that shrinkage is largely due to the disappearance of reporters from local and regional state papers that would once have had their own reporter in Albany but now rely on wire copy.”

Asked for examples of top-flight reporting in the face of the ongoing downsizing, current and former journalists had no trouble coming up with suggestions.

In Texas, the Austin American-Statesman investigated a big contract to detect Medicaid fraud and the possible conflicts of interest it entailed; reporting by the combined Tampa Bay Times-Miami Herald bureau played a major role in forcing a House speaker from office; and the Baton Rouge Advocate did solid work on the growth of state tax breaks and their impact on Louisiana’s budget woes. Most recently, spadework by Nigel Jaquiss, an investigative reporter with the alternative Willamette Week helped prompt the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat elected to the state’s highest office no fewer than four times.

Charles Ashby, a veteran Colorado journalist, said the state press corps has “brought down” a range of politicians in recent years, ranging from local officials to statewide officials and a potential gubernatorial candidate. “I think the point is that we are holding our own,” Ashby said. “Sure, more bodies and experienced people would help, but we are adapting and doing more with less.”

Journalists also noted a few positive developments.

New formats are emerging for serious journalism.

Wondering what publication has the largest statehouse bureau of any news organization in the nation today, according to the Pew Research Center? It’s The Texas Tribune -- an online-only, foundation-supported, non-profit based publication in Austin with 15 full-time reporters and 10 student reporters. The Tribune occupies a media niche that didn’t even exist a few years ago. According to Pew, in seven states -- Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont  -- online startups boast the largest number of full-time statehouse reporters.

In Vermont, VTDigger has three full-time statehouse reporters -- one-quarter of all full-time reporters in the state capitol. In Tallahassee, the five-reporter News Service of Florida receives plaudits for consistently tracking day-to-day news. Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, “is under a microscope that's every bit as intense as anything” experienced by his predecessors, said Steve Bousquet, the Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau chief.

Radio has also been a fertile medium for expansion, as with the political team assembled by California’s KQED. And in New York, an insider-oriented outlet like Capital New York has “helped bring more overall coverage to state politics, even as more traditional outlets, like the Times, widen the aperture of their coverage somewhat,” Confessore said.

Then there’s the growth of fact checking, primarily through the state affiliates of PolitiFact, the fact checking effort of the Tampa Bay Times. (Full disclosure: I am the deputy editor of PolitiFact's national staff.) PolitiFact’s method is to partner with an existing outlet to publish fact checks of local political leaders while the national staff checks the president and Congress. Typically, the state affiliate will employ two journalists to fact check claims. Currently, PolitiFact operates affiliates in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. A California outlet is set to launch later this year. Murphy, who edits PolitiFact Rhode Island, says politicians in his state have become more careful knowing that PolitiFact is keeping tabs on them.

“PolitiFact is a verb here, as well as a noun,” Murphy said. “For example, the General Assembly has a press bureau that churns out releases for the state legislators. They used to be filled with misstatements. But they've gotten much more careful about attribution and checking facts.”

New technologies are helping journalists do their jobs better.

Wong, the Oregon reporter, was one of several journalists who praised Internet-era tools that make their life easier. “There are fewer on-site reporters for the traditional media, but thanks to technology, there can be more eyes on events, as committee hearings and floor sessions are livestreamed and archived for easier post-event access." Wong said. The Internet allows citizens, including reporters, “to have more access to state government. They can look up bills and monitor them” more easily than before, said one reporter in Iowa.

That said, the news doesn’t write itself. It still takes smarts and experience to tease meaning from the torrent of available information, said Bill Ballenger, a longtime political reporter in Michigan.

“You can get more information today from a wide array of sources, most of them on the Internet, than you ever could before, but you have to work a little harder to dig it out, and it's more polarizing -- not the so-called ‘objective’ reporting we thought we could count on in the past from mainstream newspapers,” Ballenger said. “It may come from bloggers and websites and online newsletters and press releases, and it's often got a partisan edge to it. You have to collect it, sift through it and balance it out.”

Greg Borowski, who edits PolitiFact for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, agreed. Today, he said, “the breadth of coverage is greater in some ways -- various alternative media, websites, political watchers who are blogging. The challenge for readers is that the information is often without context and may come from a source with an agenda.”

Given the diffusion of outlets, he said, “any politician who thinks they can be more reckless -- even if it is getting a little tipsy at the bar after a legislative session -- is apt to learn the lesson the hard way.”

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