Editorial: Drop in the number of Statehouse reporters harms public interest


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For several decades, the role of the news media was very clearly to keep the government and other powerful interests in check. Journalists covered hard-hitting news, conducted investigations, and generally sought to serve the public interest by holding the rich and powerful accountable to the general public. But that’s changing, and the public is losing resources required to keep those in control in check.

As the Pew Research Center reported a couple weeks ago, fewer reporters are covering the U.S. statehouses. Since 2003, the number of statehouse journalists from newspapers has fallen by 35 percent. This is especially problematic because print media still have more statehouse reporters than any other medium, not surprising given that newspapers, still battered by the Great Recession, remain the largest producers of original reporting.

A majority of reporters stationed in state capitals are working less than full-time, meaning they’re either part-time or only working while the legislature is in session. Simply by virtue of being less familiar with their beats and spending less time at statehouses, reporters cannot become as familiar with state politics as they otherwise would be if they were stationed at the statehouses full-time.
Critical stories and context will likely go unnoticed as a result, damaging the news media’s ability to hold state politicians accountable.

Reporters as the Fourth Estate or an addition to the three official branches of government in the checks and balances system isn’t just a fantasy among starry-eyed journalists. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 68 percent of Americans believe that the news media “keep leaders from doing things that should not be done.”

However, when the Great Recession hit, holding the rich and powerful accountable became much, much harder. Advertising revenues, especially from lucrative classified ads, quickly evaporated, and with it, the business model that had supported newspapers for more than a century collapsed. Media outlets quickly cut many of their most expensive veteran reporters, especially those at statehouses and foreign bureaus, along with investigative teams.

The bloodletting was so extreme that newsroom staff fell from 55,000 in 2006 to 38,000 in 2012, according to the most recent data from the Newsroom Employment Census.

Of course, several hard-hitting new media start-ups and projects have met critical acclaim and success: the investigative news outlet ProPublica, former Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein’s venture into explanatory journalism Vox.com, PolitiFact, supported by the Tampa Bay Times to fact-check prominent political statements, and a handful of other web-based news outlets.

However, most of the big names in this area focus on big national and international issues and have small staffs stocked with veteran reporters who left other publications either during the mass layoffs or by choice. Meanwhile, state and local politics increasingly fly under the radar.

Looking at Pew’s state-by-state data, in Iowa just 23 reporters cover the Statehouse, 10, of whom work full-time. Fortunately, the distribution of journalists stationed in state capitals correlates to a state’s population and the length of legislative sessions, but there is no relationship between statehouse reporters and arguably more important things such as the average number of bills introduced or the number of legislators and staffers at the statehouse. Some states may be smaller than others, but they all still have plenty of legislation to sift through.

It’s blindingly obvious that to pay for quality journalism holding public officials accountable, the news media have to find a new source of income.

Trust in American institutions has been declining among the general public for years, as a recent Gallup poll shows. Over the past few decades, Americans have slowly lost faith in Washington, banks, public schools, the media, the church, and several other critical components of U.S. society.

Holding the powerful accountable, informing the public, and cutting through modern propaganda from the government and businesses (otherwise known as public relations) requires a strong watchdog.

But having a strong watchdog will mean finding new sources of revenue, whether that means raising funds from loyal fans public-radio style, appealing to charitable foundations, finding effective ways to monetize online content through paywalls and better ads, or even as proposed by media scholar Robert McChesney, a government program that provides all Americans with $200 vouchers that can go to a news outlet of their choice.

Valuable, limited ad space used to get the job done with wild profit margins for media companies to boot. That time is over. If we, as a society, want real journalism, if we want to uncover corruption and hold the rich and powerful to account, we have to pay for it.

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