The American Journalism Review has conducted a census of newspaper reporters at state capitols - and found the number has dropped by 32% in the past six years. There are now just 355 full-time statehouse reporters in the US, and all bar six states have fewer reporters at state capitols now than they did in 2003.
These worrying figures are representative of the financial pressures placed on newspapers in the current economic climate. ARJ points out that where once newspapers would have protested against allegations their coverage of state government wasn't comprehensive enough, many newspaper editors have resignedly responded to the review with comments, admitting that they simply can no longer afford the kind of coverage they used to provide.
Michael Oreskes, managing editor of the Associated Press, wrote that the AP views "state house coverage as essential and are acutely aware of our increasing responsibility at state houses as others are forced by hard times to reduce their presence". It maintains a relatively strong presence at statehouses, with 85 full time reporters, and these numbers increase during legislative sessions. Oreskes added, "We have added more people this year than in past years for the reasons I described."
The decrease in the number of such watchdog reporters not only affects the coverage which reaches newspapers, it also affects the standard of reporting that can be produced. John Patterson, who covers state government for Chicago's Daily Herald, says that the decline in reporters there leads to a decline in ideas; "The more people doing it, the more minds you have approaching a subject and coming up with ideas that then provoke you to generate other ideas. Now, that process is stilted a bit", he explains. Fewer reporters could also lead to more governmental corruption, as the scrutiny of individual politicians diminishes.
Furthermore, fewer reporters covering statehouse issues means that they must be more selective in those areas that they choose to report, not having time to cover everything. The Las Vegas Review-Journal's Ed Vogel covers the Nevada Capitol, and explains "With fewer reporters, we can only cover the main issue of the day". There is also less chance for reporters to focus on their specific area of capitol expertise, having to fill a more general role. A similar loss of in-depth knowledge arises with the trend of newspapers to lay-off older, more experienced - and therefore more expensive - staff, who often carry with them decades of statehouse memories.
However, there are those newspapers which have chosen to maintain their level of state capitol coverage. Julie Sprengelmeyer, state editor of Connecticut's Journal Inquirer, says they chose to keep "such a strong presence at the Capitol is because what happens there is so important... State government news affects everybody every day." Others have translated the content-sharing trend into a specifically statehouse collaboration; for example, the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times have combined their bureaus and now have five full time reporters between them. Many reporters also extend their coverage through personal blogs.
New online start-ups are emerging, seeking to fill the gaps left by staff cuts at statehouses. The Arizona Guardian is one such publication, started in January by three reporters and one editor who had been laid off by Phoenix's East Valley Tribune. Their decision came about as Arizona's democratic governor left to lead Obama's department of homeland security and was replaced by her Republican rival. This would once have prompted an influx of capitol reporters, but in January commanded just four. As a result, the site has received "quite a lot of response from people throughout the state because so many papers have cut back on the Legislature" explains editor Patti Epler.
The decline in statehouse reporting from America's newspapers is a worrying, although somewhat expected, reflection on their financial status. The role of newspapers as governmental watchdogs in the US has always been important in maintaining the democracy the country is famous for, and rooting out the corruption which can all too often surface in politics. Whilst the emergence of new online publications providing statehouse reporting is encouraging, it will be interesting to see if the gulf between their reporters and those of mainstream newspapers proves too wide to span.
Source: American Journalism Review