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More news, less coverage?

A huge study last year showed that despite the shift in power from Washington to the states, newspapers were cutting back on the number of reporters assigned to the statehouse beat.

It seems like an idea whose time has come: a Web site for journalists, constituents and lawmakers devoted in its entirety to state legislative news.

"We've been on line since Jan. 25, and so far we're seeing about 3,000 readers a day," reports Ed Fouhy, editor of Stateline.org, which is being produced by the Pew Center on the States.

"We are not interested in sheer numbers. This is not a mass media site where we are competing with the Associated Press or CNN," continues Fouhy. "But even so, the response we've gotten has far exceeded our expectations."

Just as impressive, the average visitor to the new site, according to Stateline's own detailed in-house readers' surveys, sticks around for nine to 10 minutes - an eternity in Web space.

Fouhy believes such responses indicate a yawning hunger across the country for news coming out of the state capitals, particularly during a time when because of devolution there is more news to report.

"We've seen a great deal of power and money going back to the states in recent years," Fouhy says, "Which naturally means that the states themselves will be creating more news. But even more than that, the states finally have the authority to do things they've been saying for a long time they should be doing for themselves. That in itself makes them newsworthy."

If the birth of Stateline.org reflects the shift of power from Washington to state capitals - perhaps the most important story of the 1990s - it also is indicative of a far less certain, and much more tentative response on the part of the press as to where government news comes from today.

"We're hearing all kinds of things on that question," says Gene Roberts, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and a long-time working reporter for such papers as The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"On the one hand, newspapers want to make the claim that they provide their readers with the most comprehensive coverage possible," says Roberts. "But it also is true that there have been cutbacks in much of the state coverage, and this has proved to be a sore point with many of the large papers."

Roberts should know. In 1998 he helped compile a massive study funded by the Pew Center and released by the American Journalism Review that showed clearly that many papers across the country were reducing their state coverage and cutting back on the number of reporters assigned to roam the marble halls of state capitols.

EMPTY DESKS

The study pulled no punches: "Coverage of state government is in steep decline," it said. "In capital" press rooms around the country, there are more and more empty desks and silent phones. Bureaus are shrinking, reporters are younger and less experienced, stories get less space and poorer play, and all too frequently editors just don't care."

The industry's response to the study was overwhelmingly negative. Newspapers across the country denied that they were shortchanging readers, or that reducing their staff presence at the legislatures meant a reduction in the amount or scope of coverage.

Other papers argued that the study shortchanged them by failing to count the many special reporters they send to cover the legislature for singular topics such as science or environmental issues. "But we were not aware of any health care reporters coming to any capital and staying for weeks at a time," explains Roberts. "We counted only the correspondents who stuck with it day in and day out."

Even so, the industry criticism of the study continued, proving at the very least that a nerve had been touched.

"I guess some people got mad," laughs Reese Cleghorn, president of the American Journalism Review and dean of the college of journalism at the University of Maryland, "so that means the study had an effect. And it should have had an effect because it is something the papers should be embarrassed about."

The study also went beyond the numbers. It dug into the very marrow of how papers decide whether or not a legislative story is worth covering. And more often than not, researchers for the Pew report found that many editors today just don't give a hoot about legislative reporting.

"They say 'Don't do the procedurals, don't do the subcommittees, wait until something goes to a full committee,'" continues Cleghorn, "even though what happens at the subcommittee level may be the most important part of the legislative process."

BIG PICTURE REPORTING

This so-called "big picture" reporting is not without its critics.

Dave McNeely, political columnist for the Austin American Statesman and a well-known advocate for increased statehouse reporting among the nation's papers, thinks following and writing about what happens to a bill as it pushes its way to final passage is the most interesting part of the process. It's what provides readers with a tangible view of where power resides in any given legislative session, he says.

"A lobbyist friend of mine once told me there is only one way to pass a bill and that is through the House and Senate, ending when the governor signs it," says McNeely. "But there are 476 ways to kill a bill and knowing where those spots are and what the process is, is crucial to both lobbying and reporting."

Jack Wardlaw, who reports on the Louisiana Legislature for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, says what happens to a bill in a committee or subcommittee can provide substance and shape that might alter the meaning and intent of the final legislation. "That's why it's important to report on the progress of a bill all the way through, particularly when it is something that the people care about anyway. If you don't, you're really doing the public a disservice."

But even worse than failing to report on the ups and downs of certain legislation is a much larger, and far less tangible, attitude on the part of many papers today concerning government reporting in general: "They don't like it," says Professor Roberts. "We were amazed to discover just how many editors today are philosophically opposed to governmental coverage in general. It is just in the air. Some newspaper companies and editors even go so far as to simply believe that state government and all government news is a big turn-off to readers, so they want to stay away from it."

Former Pennsylvania Speaker of the House and frequent press critic Bob O'Donnell sees all of this as inevitable: "You have to look at the press as a business, and until you do that you are not going to understand the story."

O'Donnell argues that the frequently aired declarations from the press that they are here to serve and fight for the public's right to know are basically nothing more than a lot of smoke and noise.

"Those kinds of statements are essentially self-serving," charges O'Donnell. "Informing the citizenry is not their main goal, making a buck is. And when you see it that way - that this is nothing more than a business looking for a market, and if reporting on lifestyles instead of the legislative process is what gets them their market - all of this begins to make much more sense."

ENTERTAINING NEWS

Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University has his own take: "Papers want to find stuff that connects with their audience, things that affect their personal lives, news that is more entertainment-oriented.

"That makes it kind of hard to sell that story about the legislature discussing energy deregulation. People just don't see what it has to do with them," he says.

But Rosenthal says he can't but wonder if a shrinking state press corps is such a bad thing: "Given the nature of the coverage, I am not really all that devastated."

Industry insiders say the primary reason for the decrease in state coverage is found in the results of the many readers' surveys that papers regularly conduct. These are surveys usually commissioned by a paper or publishers' group and intended to gauge public satisfaction or the lack of it with a given newspaper. Should the front page type be bigger or smaller? Would you like to see more or fewer graphs and color? How about the amount of sports reporting and the number and variety of cartoons?

But the answers to such surveys are oftentimes colored by the manner in which questions are asked and their context. And sometimes the survey results can be downright contradictory. In 1990 some 63 percent of the readers of The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., said in a survey that they would read the paper more if fewer of the stories from the front page "jumped" to an inside page.

In response, the Register began to run shorter stories, half of which began and ended on the front page. Goodbye to those annoying jumps. Then in 1997 came another survey for the same paper, and it showed that 59 percent said they wanted to read longer stories in the newspaper, and would be more likely to read the Register even if a story from the front page jumped to an inside page.

Similar surveys repeatedly indicate that readers dislike meaty government pieces, whether of the reporting or analytical variety, prompting publishers and editors to cut such coverage.

But the problem with such marketing research is that it is anything but solid or sure. "Much of it is subjective, unscientific and amenable to manipulation," contends the American Journalism Review in another epic study, this one released in March on how reader surveys are conducted. "Its heavy reliance on focus groups constitutes a serious weakness. Its results always depend on the questions asked. And questions of interest to serious journalists (for instance, what's the impact of challenging a community's cherished assumptions?) are almost never explored."

Perhaps the landmark readers' survey was sponsored by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau and the American Newspaper Publishers Association in the late 1970s. Comments from some 3,000 respondents indicated that readers wanted more attention paid "to their personal needs, help in understanding and dealing with their own problems in an increasingly complex world."

Newspaper publishers and editors across the country took those results to mean that people also disliked governmental reporting, beginning the long drive to lessen coverage on the national, state and local levels. And even though the two principal authors of the 1978 Newspaper Readership Project later argued that their findings had been taken out of context, the trend has clearly continued.

FEWER REPORTERS

As of 1998, according to the Pew study, virtually every major newspaper had pulled back on its statehouse reporting. In some 27 states, there were fewer reporters covering state news than just six years ago, while only 14 states could report increases. Part of the decline is due to the collapse of the United Press International news service, which was once a major presence in virtually every state capital.

Other statehouse reporters were lost to mergers or the closings of such papers as the Baton Rouge State Times, the Nashville Banner, the Phoenix Gazette and the Arkansas Gazette.

The giant Gannett and Knight-Ridder newspaper chains have reduced their statehouse reporting staffs by more than 14 percent followed by smaller decreases at the Newhouse and MediaWatch chains.

But individual papers such as The Albuquerque Journal, The Charlotte Observer and The Times-Picayune have seen moderate gains in the number of reporters assigned to the state legislatures.

"Our statehouse staff has actually increased in recent years," says McNeely of the Austin American Statesman. But in a state that has seen an abnormal amount of press closings, including the Houston Post, the Dallas Times Herald and the San Antonio Light, the surviving papers in these big Texas markets, according to McNeely, "don't do as much state reporting as they used to mainly because they don't have the competition they once did. There's a lack of incentive."

Ironically, as many in-state papers have cut back on their statehouse reporting, national papers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have increased their state staffs.

The New York Times, in fact, has emphasized increased statehouse reporting on its national pages, a move that Robin Toner lauds as a move in the right direction. "The Times today takes the states incredibly seriously. And, what with welfare and more of the important stuff getting kicked out to the states as opposed to being dealt with exclusively in Washington, this is the kind of coverage we should be providing."

Toner, who was the chief of correspondents for the national desk at the Times and is now covering policy news in Washington, comes to her interest in state news naturally: She covered the West Virginia and then Georgia legislatures when she began her career as a journalist in the late 1970s. She now says she cannot imagine tackling Washington without the experience she gained at the state legislative level.

"There is a certain rhythm to covering a legislative body that is transferable," says Toner. "And that helped me immensely when it came to trying to understand Washington."

STRINGERS HELP

The New York Times does not maintain a presence in every one of the state capitals, but it does employ an elaborate network of stringers and paid correspondents who keep the regional bureaus and the national desk back in New York abreast of statehouse events. If a story is particularly important, the Times will send in one of their heavy hitters to cover it at the statehouse.

"You don't see much of them unless there is a big story unfolding with true national interest," says Wardlaw of the Times-Picayune. He remembers the explosive abortion rights debates that took place in the Louisiana Legislature during the early 1990s, which attracted staff reporters from the Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, far and above their usual stringers. "They ganged up on us then," says Wardlaw.

Similarly at USA Today, columnist Rich Wolf, who willingly said adios to writing about Washington in favor of emphasizing the states, does not actually visit each and every one of the state capitols, nor does he write about them all. But his net is wide if he can spot a trend.

"That's the best thing about this business," explains Wolf. "So often there will be five or six or eight states tackling something like welfare reform or term limits at the same time. That is perfect for my column because then I can write about as many states as possible with this one topic and compare and contrast the things they are doing."

The New York Times, says Toner, uses the same approach. "I think we are looking for patterns: Is what is happening in Oklahoma also happening in Texas and Missouri? And are we going to be the first to pick up on it?"

Although on many days the Times does indeed reach deep into the South through its Atlanta bureau or out West with the desk in Los Angeles, the paper obviously continues to emphasize its coverage of states nearest to its circulation base: New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut in particular. "If they are a state legislative paper," says Rosenthal, "that legislature is in Albany."

Although no one argues that the increased attention of the Times and other national publications will compensate for the cutbacks in statehouse reporting on the part of the other big city and capital city dailies, statehouse reporting advocates are fighting back.

OCTOBER SEMINAR

In October, the editors of the Colorado Springs Gazette, in conjunction with the Pew Center as well as several other sponsoring groups (including NCSL), will host a three-day seminar designed to examine the state of statehouse reporting. The idea, says Steve Smith, managing editor at the Gazette, is partly to talk about "the possibility of organizing ourselves into some sort of professional organization that would help perpetuate the craft of statehouse reporting."

With more than 400 statehouse reporters from around the country already signed up for the conference, Smith says the meeting could also serve to symbolize the commitment that at least this part of the press feels toward "quality legislative coverage." Whether or not their publishers will be listening is another matter.

Meanwhile the editors of the massive Pew study that got everyone charged up in the first place are hoping to find funding for a second study that may show marginal increases in the number of reporters covering state capitols.

"The evidence is only anecdotal at this point," says Professor Roberts. "But from what we've been hearing, many of the papers who reduced their staffs by 1996 and 1997 have turned around and hired new reporters to cover the legislatures. We just don't know at this point if the new gains are enough to make up for the old losses. Probably not. But at least it's a step in the right direction."

For Fouhy at Stateline.org the idea that any news organization could ignore or choose not to cover the states is inconceivable. "Now more than ever, the papers should be following state events because there is so much going on in there," he says. He notes by way of illustration that the states recently were earmarked for more than $30 billion in federal money that was once used to fund more than 100 job and vocational training programs.

"So the obvious question now is what are the states going to do with that money? How will they do anything different? What new ideas will they come up with?" Fouhy continues.

"How can any paper not want to cover stories like this?"

Gary Boulard, a free-lance writer in New Orleans, is a frequent contributor to State Legislatures.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:legislative newspaper reporting
Author:Boulard, Garry
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:2992
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