Capital Mistakes  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   June 2002

Capital Mistakes   

The drop in the number of statehouse reporters is all wrong.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


I'm no stranger to state capitals.

In 1972, it was my pleasure to cover the Berrigan trial, a fascinating affair in which the Nixon administration charged a bunch of Catholic lefties with plotting to, among other things, blow up steam tunnels and kidnap Henry Kissinger.

The downside was that I had to spend 13 weeks in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital. Now for all I know Harrisburg today is Paris on the Susquehanna. But back then it was one sleepy town.

Years later, I spent a couple of years in New Jersey's capital as managing editor of the Trenton Times. It was a great gig: The paper was owned by the Washington Post Co., and it attracted an awesome array of reporting talent. But while they call New Jersey the Garden State, not much was flowering in Trenton (except maybe for the great fern bar Soho).

Don't get me wrong, I loved the quirky, hurtin' burg anyway, as my wife, Ellen, pointed out when I was lobbying her (quite unsuccessfully) to move to Milwaukee: "Anyone who liked Trenton and Miami has no credibility when it comes to places."

But while I've done time in state capitals, I never covered a statehouse. Guess I'll have a lot of company in the ranks of journalists.

Because the news from AJR's latest tally of capitol reporters is not good. There are 33 fewer of them than there were two years ago, casualties of rampant budget cutting to shore up the margins during a down economy (see "Sad State," page 18).

When the Project on the State of the American Newspaper first tackled this subject four years ago, the findings were deeply depressing (see "Missing the Story at the Statehouse," July/August 1998). The number of capitol reporters had declined in 27 states since the early '90s. The total roster of statehouse reporters was just 513. This, of course, at a time when the responsibilities and budgets of the states were growing significantly.

Much of the drop was due to cost-cutting by the major newspaper chains. Underlying the phenomenon was a developing conventional wisdom that government news was "boring," that readers couldn't care less about it.

Many were shocked by the numbers. And the next few years saw positive developments. When we counted in 2000, the number had rebounded modestly to 543. And other changes were in the wind. The Pew Charitable Trusts (which financed the Project on the State of the American Newspaper) launched Stateline.org, which posts news about state legislation and is an invaluable resource for statehouse reporters. Those reporters formed an organization called ACRE to leverage their expertise.

But the latest tally shows a complete reversal of momentum. Once again much of the backsliding stems from cuts at the major newspaper companies. And not just Gannett and Knight Ridder, but also the New York Times Co., whose roster dropped by 22 percent. The Times has been justly praised for its free-spending blanket coverage of the aftermath of September 11. The Times itself didn't reduce its commitment. But the company's regional papers in four states did.

There was some good news. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which got cuffed around in our 1998 piece, has upped its contingent of full-time Statehouse reporters from three to five.

Why would it do a thing like that? Charles Gay, the paper's Capitol editor, explains that readers are interested in state government because "it affects everybody's life."

Exactly.

That's just what's so wrong about the retreat from the capitol. Sure, an awful lot of eye-glazing stories have been written about statehouse developments over the years. But that doesn't mean capitol news is inherently dull. It just means that too many reporters and editors get mired in inside baseball or don't approach pieces with imagination and clarity or forget to remind readers what this has to do with them.

People rely on newspapers for many things, of course, from TV listings to sports coverage to horoscopes. And there's a wide variety of news content that's vital--powerful narratives, engaging feature stories, useful consumer news.

But the press' bedrock responsibility in our democracy is to provide readers with information they need to function as citizens, to keep them informed as to what government--at every level--is up to, to serve as the public's watchdog.

That's why staffing the statehouse is so vital, and why the abdication of that duty is so profoundly discouraging.

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