Watchdog

07.19.14

Who’s Watching Your Statehouse? No One.

The number of full-time journalists on the Capitol beat is down 40 percent since 2003. Why even politicians are saying weak newspaper economics is a disaster for democracy.

For generations of journalists, covering the statehouse has been a prestigious beat. It typically came with a desk in the building, and ample access to lawmakers. It was not an assignment for a novice. You worked your way up to it, and you had to be good. Bringing down a governor, exposing corruption—all in a day’s work. The statehouse is where reputations were made and politicians ran scared, knowing multiple news organizations could be on their case.

But that era is ending, a casualty of newspaper economics and a changing society. On a good day, state news is under-covered, especially compared to its importance. While multitudes of reporters in Washington chronicle the gridlocked Congress, the number of full-time reporters covering 50 statehouses has fallen to roughly 300, down from 500 in 2003, according to the Pew Research Center.

State legislatures pass laws on virtually every issue that matters in our daily lives, from public safety and justice to education, poverty and hunger, health care and transportation, jobs, and voting. Lawmakers are often part-time and have business interests that pose conflicts. “They need more watching than members of Congress,” says Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the nonpartisan Justice at Stake. “Politics without accountability is a recipe for insider power and outright corruption, a golden age for running the table in the states.”

The decline in reporters working for mainstream or legacy media outlets has been filled in part by journalists hired by specialty news outlets like the Alaska Budget Report, which charges $2,397 for a year’s subscription, and the pro-free market Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Mark Jurkowitz, one of the authors of the Pew study, says the ideologically driven reporting tends to be on the right. Pew found only one organization in North Carolina identifying as progressive. “With resources stretched as thin as they are and reporters caught up in the day to day ping-pong, enterprise reporting or looking for scandal goes by the wayside.” 

“There’s never a replacement for a paid nose to sniff things out.”

“I see the real impact. It’s just an emptier place,” says Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. “There’s a heavier reliance on interns and students doing jobs that were done by people who were well-trained and savvy and ready to ask questions well beyond the obvious. We have good newspapers, good television and radio journalists, but not enough to go around.”

Simon is running for state comptroller, and pledges that if elected she will make the financial reports from local governments more understandable online by breaking them down per capita so journalists and others can compare the numbers, and don’t have to be “super-geeky” to decipher them.

This is important because Illinois leads the country with more than 7,000 jurisdictions, a dubious distinction since the sheer volume of elected and patronage positions offers opportunities for corruption. The most recent egregious example was in Dixon, Illinois, where the city treasurer in 2012 was found to have embezzled $53.7 million over 22 years. “I want to use information to put a lid on that local corruption before it gets too extreme,” Simon told The Daily Beast.

The phenomenon of the shrinking press corps has been underway for some time, decades even. Bert Brandenburg was Janet Reno’s spokesman when she was U.S. attorney general in the 1990as. Reno held a press conference every Thursday at 9:30 a.m., “and any reporter in America could attend,” he says. “I saw more reporters coming in having to ask very basic questions. They were so stretched they had to cover a lot of different subjects.”

Now Brandenburg chairs the board of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, and he worries that the combination of outside money and dwindling press coverage “adds up to an increased risk that democracy operates secretly in plain sight.” In the age of the Internet, there are many more tools for people to access information. Voters don’t have to wait for reporters to spoon-feed them. “But information doesn’t transmit itself,” he says. “There’s never a replacement for a paid nose to sniff things out.”

When Walter Jones started at the Georgia Capitol in 1998, if one outlet broke an investigative story, all the others chased it, each taking turns advancing the story. And in the end someone would resign, get fired, or indicted. Now, there are no reporters to advance a story so that only one outlet is doing all the work, allowing the subject of those stories to merely dismiss them with, “Oh, that paper has never liked me,” says Jones. 

He used to work with multiple reporters, now he’s in a one-man bureau for the Morris News Service. His editors are more likely to tell him to stand down on a big story a competitor breaks, telling him to give them something they can’t pick up from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Without a critical mass of media, the politicians can get away with claiming the Atlanta paper has a vendetta against them. They win reelection with paid television ads. “If people would just read their newspapers instead of getting information from television ads,” the politicians would have to work harder to fool the people, he says. “We’d all do better if we ate our spinach and vegetables too.”