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Wanted: state house reporters

June 25, 2009

Our list-serv has been buzzing with several recent news stories about the dwindling statehouse press corps. There’s this from the Christian Science Monitor:

“Many important issues remain unaddressed as lawmakers are consumed by this clownish partisan free-for-all about whose petty issues most New Yorkers could not care less,” declared the Staten Island Advance, in a typical complaint.

But here’s the part its readers might not know: the Advance recently closed its Albany bureau. Since 2007, in fact, five newspapers have removed their correspondents from the statehouse. And the papers that still send reporters there have trimmed their bureaus to the bone.

Nationwide, the trend is the same. The number of full-time reporters in American state capitols has decreased 32 percent in the past six years, according to a study released last April by the American Journalism Review. Over 140 newspapers have reduced their statehouse staffs since 2003, and more than 50 have eliminated these staffs altogether.

So should we really be surprised when state lawmakers act in corrupt, brazen, or silly ways? The real surprise is that they don’t do it more often. Or maybe we just don’t know, because newspapers are no longer minding the store.

The Lansing City Pulse bemoans the loss of Michigan’s Capitol Press Corps:

I’m told that once upon a time, the Lansing Capitol press corps was a big deal. In the early 1980s, the News and Detroit Free Press had up to 11 reporters (a piece) hanging around the big white dome. Booth Newspapers — the parent of newspapers in Grand Rapids, Jackson, Flint, etc. — had a huge bureau. Channel 4 in Detroit had a gregarious personality named Tom Green running around. Channel 7 had a reporter. Channel 2 sent someone up regularly.

There was The Associated Press, UPI. Shoot, even the Lansing State Journal used to care about the Capitol, if you can believe that. At a time before e-mail and faxes, state government actually hired someone to manage the press room. He called reporters when press conferences were happening so nobody missed a story.

The press corps had power. When a ticked-off Gov. John Engler tried to shut down the coveted Capitol press room, the reporters banded together in a united front and stopped it.

When I came to Lansing in 2001, the press corps’ retreat was well under way. The decimated corps must have looked like a rag-tag army in comparison. Nobody, outside of the Michigan Public Radio duo, was using the press room anymore.

And finally, there’s this thought from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism: we’re a charity case. No really:

And so my biggest fear in the death of metro papers is the vacuum that will be left in coverage of state capitals. I don’t buy the dire predictions that journalism itself or investigative journalism will die with those papers. Washington will still be covered; one could say it’s over-covered (if often poorly covered) today. City government will be covered because it affects people’s lives directly and because there’ll always be somebody to catch the mayor red-handed.

But statehouses? Unless your governor is a former movie star or pro wrestler or client of prostitutes, they don’t get much – enough – attention. And even when it does get covered, there’s no obvious and endemic advertising support. Capital coverage was the gift of broccoli from news organizations and no one’s likely to bring that dish to the new news potluck.

That’s why I think that in the new ecosystem of news, state capital coverage may need to be publicly and charitably supported. Unsexy though it may be, it does affect our lives and purses. And witness the inanity in Albany lately, state government is populated too often with crooked fools who must be watched.

So it would be easy to feel like an endangered species, embattled and ready to be chased into oblivion. But there’s still fight in us yet. And if you want to network with others still keeping tabs on those rascally legislative critters, there’s not better venue than our annual conference. Come to Indianapolis and learn about everything from impeachments to state budgets. If you have questions e-mail Patrick.Guinane@nwitimes.com or board@capitolbeat.org.

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