One of the more interesting experiments in maintaining newspapers' traditional capacity to cover state government was announced in November by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald: They're combining their Tallahassee bureaus. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News took a similar step in Austin a couple of years ago, but they're both owned by the Hearst chain. The Times and Herald are in different corporate families. (The St. Petersburg Times, like Governing, is owned by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.)
"We became intrigued that we'd expand the reach of each organization," says Neil Brown, the Times' executive editor, noting that the Herald was down to two reporters in its capitol bureau and his own paper down to three. "So if you took a three- and a two-person bureau, wouldn't you have a greater powerhouse if you had a five-person bureau that was a little throwback to the days when the press corps was stronger?"
Moves like this make statehouse reporters nervous, since in this era of one-newspaper cities, capitol pressrooms are about the last place left where intense competition flourishes. "That gave everyone pause," says Brown. "We're not interested in dulling the adrenaline or competitive spirit that goes with beating someone on a story. But if we're truly about holding people accountable and serving our readers, some of the competitive feelings we have tend to be minor and lost on our audience. The opportunity to give the audience more meaningful Tallahassee coverage at the expense of a small scoop here and there was worth it."
Still, says Democratic state Senator Dan Gelber, the move "will make it harder for smaller outfits to compete unless they consolidate, too. I sometimes think we'll end up with two desks in our state, and one will be one group of newspapers, and the other will be other papers with an equal number of reporters. It's a big risk. If it works perfectly, you'll find six reporters coordinating their stories so you don't get duplication. If it doesn't, you'll see huge elements of government ignored and not scrutinized, which would be devastating."