Why Corruption Grows in Our States

The nation’s founders built state capitals in remote areas, to avoid possible tyranny. But with fewer reporters aggressively covering state politics, Richard J. Tofel says corruption will increase precisely because government is so far away.

05.24.10 11:11 PM ET

Testifying before Congress last year on the business crisis in journalism, David Simon, creator of The Wire and former journalist, lamented the decline of statehouse reporting. “The next 10 to 15 years will be halcyon days for local corruption,” he declared. “It’s going to be a great time to be a corrupt politician.”

The continuing irresponsibility gripping state governments from Sacramento to Albany is indicative of how problems can mushroom in the dark when scrutiny declines.

Amid this gloom, it is worth noting that this looming 21st-century problem has much of its roots in the 18th century. The notion at the time of the nation’s founding, and even earlier, was that one way to check possible tyranny was to disperse power physically, by locating the seat of government away from the center of population. Such an approach had been taken in most colonies, and also was considered critical in finding a permanent home for the new national capital. The Constitution called for creating a new capital district, and Madison, in Federalist 43, stressed that the district would require independence even from the state out of which it was carved. A subsequent grand compromise located the new city of Washington between not only two states, but between the nation’s two regions, North and South. The capital was then constructed out of a swamp.

Today, 31 states have a capital located outside their largest metropolitan area. More remarkably, this is true of all eight of our most populous states and 12 of the most populous 13—think Springfield rather than Chicago, Austin instead of Houston, Harrisburg not Philadelphia.

What does all this have to do with paralysis in modern state capitals? A great deal.

The Most Corrupt StatesSimply put, as the fortunes of the press (and particularly of the newspapers that have long played a key watchdog role) decline, costs must be cut, especially news costs. That means fewer reporters on the beat. And when the statehouse is far away—when developments there are not a “local” story—the capital bureau becomes an easy target.

The numbers certainly support David Simon’s concerns: The American Journalism Review reported last year that the number of full-time reporters assigned to state capitals had dropped by one-third in six years, to an average of just seven reporters per state. With the business of the press having deteriorated further since the AJR survey, the numbers today are surely worse—and the continuing gridlock and irresponsibility gripping state governments from Sacramento to Albany are indicative of how problems can mushroom in the dark when scrutiny declines.

The largest statehouse bureau of any newspaper in the country, not surprisingly, is maintained by the dominant paper in the capital city of the nation’s most populous state, The Sacramento Bee. The statehouse is “a large hometown business in addition to a large public-policy arena,” Amy Chance, The Bee’s political editor, told AJR last year. “For us, this is a local news story.” Unfortunately, The Bee is only California’s fifth-largest paper in terms of circulation. The Los Angeles Times, with nearly three times The Bee’s circulation, has a Sacramento bureau of six reporters compared to The Bee’s eight. The Times has 55 reporters covering metropolitan Los Angeles.

The situation is similar in New York. The Albany Times-Union, the state’s 10th-largest newspaper by circulation, has four reporters covering the statehouse. That is one more than those employed by The New York Times, which has a total circulation 13 times as great as that of the Albany paper—and a New York state circulation of 387,000, roughly five times the total circulation of the Albany paper. The Times has about 60 reporters covering New York City.

The Wall Street Journal (New York State circulation, 203,000) has just launched a daily Greater New York section, with a dedicated staff of about 20 reporters, only one of them based in Albany.

What is to be done about this?

It is clearly impractical, at this late date, to propose the relocation of most of the nation’s state capitals. And this is no time in the news business to recommend adding to the total reporting staffs at newspapers.

Perhaps new entities, such as the online Texas Tribune (headquartered in Austin, and where I am a member of the advisory board) or California Watch (located in Berkeley and Sacramento) can provide some of the answer. Surely, my own home state of New York would be well-served by the creation of such a group.

But at the same time, local publishers who think of themselves as serving their readers’ broad interests—the sorts of publishers who continue to fund international reporting, for instance—need also to remember that their own state capitals may be out of sight, but cannot afford to be kept understaffed and thus out of mind.

Richard J. Tofel is general manager of ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit devoted to investigative reporting in the public interest, and author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism.