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Shrinking statehouse press corps impacts the public

Posted: August 5, 2014 - 11:13pm

ATLANTA — The reduction in reporters covering the statehouse may be impacting more than just the journalists or the politicians and could play a role in the quality of government.

That’s the takeaway from a study recently released by the Pew Research Center Journalism Project. Its census of the 1,592 journalists in the 50 states provides a snapshot of who is keeping an eye on things, and when added to regular surveys that had been conducted by the American Journalism Review, provides insights on staffing trends.

Before the internet and the recent recession, there began about a 15-year decline by 35 percent in the number of reporters. Consider that today, less than one-third of newspapers assign any reporter to the capitol and more than eight out of 10 television stations have no presence there either.

“I do think there’s been a loss in general across the country, and that’s very concerning to me,” the Pew report quotes Patrick Marley, who covers the Wisconsin statehouse for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We have scads of reporters in Washington covering every bit of news that Congress makes. State legislators have more effect on people’s daily lives. We need to have eyes on them, lots of eyes.”

And it’s not just news hounds crying in their beer over days gone by. Policymakers also expressed concern.

“The public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives,” Gene Rose, the former communications director of the National Conference of State Legislatures told the researchers.

Officials like Rose note that public participation in policy debates is usually determined by the news coverage an issue receives. When people learn what’s being proposed, they have a chance to weigh in, and usually the more they learn, the more they care.

But fewer reporters means that more issues escape exposure. During a typical legislative session, 1,500 bills are introduced, and if the two-dozen or so journalists covering the Gold Dome report on three per day, the majority will still live or die in the shadows. Since reporters try to keep the public abreast of the major legislation, most of those daily stories by the assembled press corps deal with the same handful of bills, reducing the breath of coverage further.

Having a correspondent dedicated to a local audience – like Morris News Service is tasked to readers in Augusta, Savannah, Athens and the Golden Isles – means that practically all local legislation and significant bills by hometown legislators gets covered. It’s just that few lawmakers come from areas with a reporter from their local paper, as the study showed.

Another consequence is the reduced investigative reporting. A decade and a half ago when the hallway housing the Atlanta press corps was full, competition was friendly but spirited.

When one newspaper uncovered a scandal, the statehouse reporters from every other paper jumped on the story to dig up their own scoop for the next day. After a couple of weeks of various outlets unearthing new revelations daily, the accumulated evidence usually led to someone resigning, getting fired or indicted.

Now, the reduced ranks means that the few reporters left must concentrate on their own investigations rather than trying to advance one begun by a competitor. That means that whoever broke the first hint of the scandal effectively owns the story.

The media outlet may still do a series of stories as new facts come to light or additional sources step forward, but without other outlets helping to advance the story, the subject of those exposės can offer the defense, “Oh, that’s just that newspaper which has never liked me anyway.” Such comments transform a suspicious politician into a victim in the eyes of supporters and producing more entrenchment.

That’s why the number of journalism investigations resulting in personnel changes has dropped faster than the press corps’ reduction.

The Pew researchers recognize that their tally mighty understate things because as newspapers have cut back full-time statehouse staffing, the number of part-time, student and alternative-media reporters has grown.

“The time that they spend there, even if they have the skills, they are not going to have the time to cultivate the kind of information and sources of full-time reporters,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew’s Journalism Project.

The online newsletters that have popped up, often begun by veteran reporters after being laid off by newspapers, have such limited circulations and struggle so financially that the impact of even their hardest hitting stories is stunted, Jurkowitz said.

Statehouses are critical because they control huge budgets and pass laws that have more direct connection to the daily lives of citizens than the federal government. At the same time, they are the laboratories where federal policy often originates. No Child Left Behind began in Texas, and the Affordable Care Act was modeled on a Massachusetts law.

A final point is that state political reporting is essentially the antidote to attack ads by super PACs. That’s because readers informed about candidates through objective reporting aren’t swayed by hysterical distortions in 30-second TV spots.

So, while a few digital newsletters or students may be attempting to fill the void created by a diminished press corps, it’s actually the super PACs. And that explains a lot of what we see in government today.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@
morris.com.

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