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Nonprofits Help Fill the Gap in Statehouse News Coverage

Reporters at nonprofit news outlets now make up 20 percent of the total capitol press corps. The total number of full-time reporters, however, continues to decline.

A reporter at work at the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton.
(Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media//TNS)
Dan Walters was already an experienced reporter when he started writing a column for the Sacramento Union way back in 1975. That newspaper shut down 20 years later and Walters moved over to the Sacramento Bee. That wasn’t his last professional stop, however. For the past five years, Walters has been writing for CalMatters, a nonprofit site offering coverage of state politics and policy.

“I’ve been in this business for 61 years and being near the ground floor as something’s inventing itself has been an interesting experience,” Walters says. “It’s been truly an amazing thing, going from nothing, basically, to as significant and prominent as any other political news outlet in California."

The growth of CalMatters is the primary reason California has gained more statehouse reporters over the past decade than any other state. Nationwide, the number of statehouse reporters employed at nonprofit news outlets has grown from 92 in 2014 to 353 today. That means they represent 20 percent of the total statehouse press corps, up from just 6 percent in 2014, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

“The fundamental reason we exist is that we believe state government is the level of government that has the biggest impact on people’s lives and is covered the least,” says Chris Fitzsimon, director and publisher of States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that are now in 26 states. “We can’t rely on folks covering these issues part time. We need to increase the number of people reporting on state policy and politics.”

Previous studies by Pew and the American Journalism Review have tracked steady declines in the number of statehouse reporters over the past quarter-century. The latest Pew figures show a slight uptick in the total number of journalists covering states — up 11 percent since 2014.
Journalism in general is in decline, but it appears statehouse reporting will not vanish, thanks in large part to nonprofit newsrooms. “It sounds as if we’ve hit the bottom of the trough and we’re holding steady,” says Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “When the Texas Tribune started in 2009, we were in the midst of this decline — fewer and fewer outlets and fewer and fewer reporters and resources within those outlets being devoted to statehouse coverage.”

But fewer than half of the state-level journalists around are full-time reporters, according to Pew. The rest are only covering legislatures or other parts of state government part time, or they’re students, interns or support staff. There are now just 850 full-time reporters devoted to statehouse coverage, spread unevenly among 50 states. That’s including reporters who are in the capitol during legislative sessions only.

The number of newspaper reporters devoted to coverage of states has dropped from 604 to 448 since 2014. The number of wire service reporters has fallen from 139 to 107. “I still worry that there’s a gap in the information people need and the information they’re getting,” Fitzsimon says, “so I think nonprofit news has a large role to play in trying to fill that gap.”

In addition to the nonprofit outlets, there’s been growth among digital-only outlets such as the Colorado Sun and Iowa Starting Line, along with state-specific coverage provided in some capitols by national outlets such as Axios, Bloomberg News and Politico. Some reporters at a range of outlets are funded by grants from Report for America.

News coverage of states may look a lot different than it used to but — in notable contrast to other activities no longer written nearly as much by newspapers, such as the arts and high school sports — statehouse coverage appears to have avoided mass extinction.

“I am more optimistic about the future of the capitol press corps than others may be,” says Steve Bousquet, opinion editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Obviously, it's much smaller than it was, but the press corps of today is scrappy, aggressive and knows the issues.”

Changing Face of the Corps

It’s common for old-timers around capitols to talk about how much the press corps has shrunk. Where newspapers once deployed teams of reporters, now they mostly send just one, or none. “There probably are about one-third as many reporters in Tallahassee as there were in the glory days of the 1980s,” Bousquet says.

Numbers alone don’t tell the full story, he says. More reporters might have meant better coverage — but it also meant there were lots of duplicative stories charting incremental steps taken by legislation, or insider accounts of leadership chess moves that weren’t of much interest outside their chambers. “It was not unusual to go through the news clips in the morning and see 14 versions of essentially the same news story,” Bousquet says. “That's not the best use of journalistic resources.”

There’s been hand-wringing for years now that veterans who’d been around for decades and knew all the players and by-ways have been replaced by newbies in their 20s who barely know how to read a bill. There’s some truth in that. Covering statehouses has become less of a career and more of a way station.

But there’s also been an upside, with the capitol press corps no longer the exclusive province of white guys. New reporters have brought, in many cases, new perspectives. “The cool thing about States Newsroom is that embedded in the mission is voices from the communities that don’t always have a seat at the table when decisions are made: Black, brown, LGBTQ, neurodiverse,” says John Micek, editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, part of the States Newsroom network.

Benefits of Competition

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star has four reporters covering the capitol full time. CalMatters has a total of 43 editorial employees. “Right now, we’re at least a third or maybe half of the capitol press corps,” Walters says. “We’re sitting over there with 20 to 25 people actively covering and writing stuff. The L.A. Times has six people, the Bee four or five and the others have one-person bureaus, if they exist at all.”

The nonprofit newsrooms not only provide coverage on their own sites. They also allow other publications to run their stories for free. Most have placed stories in dozens of smaller newspapers and sites around their states.
“From my perspective, Minnesota still has a robust capitol reporter pool,” says St. Paul lobbyist Elizabeth Emerson. “The trend I see is capitol reporters pursuing opportunities with nontraditional or emerging media outlets such as MinnPost, The Reformer, Axios and Sahan Journal, which have taken flight and successfully lured established capitol reporters. They’re still producing quality reporting, just in an edgier way.”

Their sheer existence has also made legacy institutions step up their game. When there are only a couple of reporters around, the story can be whatever they’re interested in. No one might notice if they skip over an important but boring topic, such as pensions. But with more reporters from nonprofits nosing around — and increasingly focusing on breaking news, not the long explanatory pieces some outlets started out by specializing in — reporters from traditional outlets have to step up their games.

“When you have a political-slash-government-focused publication like the Texas Tribune, it gets the competitive juices flowing between outlets,” Henson says. “That’s certainly happened here.”

Beyond the sheer number of reporters, the nature of statehouse reporting has changed, with more time devoted to social media posts, perhaps at the expense of shoe-leather reporting. During the pandemic, many reporters went remote, watching livestreams of committee meetings and texting sources rather than hanging around offices.

But statehouse reporting had to evolve to remain a viable activity in the current media environment.

“It’s incredible to be given the resources to cover state government full time,” Micek says. “Apart from local government, it’s got its mitts in the most things and affects people’s lives directly.”


Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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