Resurrection in Dixie
Five years ago the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Statehouse coverage was moribund. Today its nine-member bureau, the nation's third-largest contingent of capital reporters, provides readers with robust reporting on state government.
By Charles Layton & Jennifer Dorroh
Last fall, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a staff meeting to introduce its new managing editor for news, Hank Klibanoff.
Charles Layton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer. Jennifer Dorroh (email@example.com) is AJR's managing editor.
The AJC had been in turmoil for the past year as a new management team shifted dozens of jobs around, redesigning beats and turning reporters into editors and editors into reporters. Although the stated purpose of the shake-up--stronger hard news and enterprise reporting--was a popular one, the changes were disquieting. People wondered how they would fare, who would be up and who would be down.
They were especially curious about Klibanoff, an outsider hired away from the Philadelphia Inquirer to be the hands-on guy for news.
After the speeches of introduction, Jim Tharpe, who covers the Georgia House of Representatives, walked over to Klibanoff, shook hands and identified himself as a Capitol reporter. Klibanoff responded with enthusiasm. How did Tharpe like the Capitol bureau? he wanted to know. Did the bureau have enough staff? Klibanoff wanted to make sure the Statehouse reporters had everything they needed to do the job right. "Those were like the first words out of his mouth," Tharpe recalls. He realized the Statehouse bureau had a new friend.
Around the same time, the metro editor invited the Capitol staff to his house, ordered in some barbecue and led a four- or five-hour brainstorming session on legislative coverage. Then one day an assistant metro editor called Statehouse reporter James Salzer to chat about possible changes at the bureau. Salzer says the editor asked him, "If you had a dream team over there, if you could create your own bureau, who would you want?"
In the past, such talk was unheard-of at the AJC. Throughout the 1990s the paper had been run by Ron Martin, an editor who didn't much care for government news. Under his tenure the Capitol bureau had lost staff, gotten less space and poorer play for stories, and suffered diminished prestige and sagging morale – this at the capital's hometown paper.
Five years ago--perhaps the low point for Capitol reporting at the paper--AJR interviewed Stephen Harvey, then the editor for Statehouse news. Speaking of the decline in coverage, he said: "The thinking seems to be that people just aren't that interested." And Mike King, who was then the metro editor, said he had developed "a hardened attitude" about "how much time and how much resources to devote to something that has so little impact." (See "Missing the Story at the Statehouse," July/August 1998.)
Similar attitudes prevailed at many newspapers, but the Cox-owned Atlanta paper seemed an especially sad case, given its distinguished history of state government coverage. It had been a thorn in the side of segregationist politicians during the civil rights era--a legacy preserved today in the portrait gallery of Georgia governors on the second floor of the Capitol. In one of those portraits, Lester Maddox, governor from 1967 through 1971, is posed in a seersucker suit in front of a table on which several objects can be seen: a couple of Georgia peaches, a photo of Maddox's wife and a fish wrapped in a copy of the Atlanta Constitution, symbolic of the governor's abiding scorn.
No newspaper could wish for higher tribute. But if Maddox had served in the 1990s, he might have had less to complain about.
"Probably a year-and-a-half ago we were sitting around ruminating about, 'Will the last person to leave the [Journal-Constitution] Capitol bureau please turn out the lights,' " says Chris Riggall, head of media relations in the secretary of state's office.
"But now," says Riggall, "that has completely reversed."
Last year the AJC expanded the bureau from three full-time reporters to five, and early this year the head count rose again, to nine, giving Atlanta the third-largest statehouse bureau in the country. The only papers with larger ones are Newark's Star-Ledger, with 12 reporters (see "The Jersey Giant," October 2000), and the Sacramento Bee, with 10. The bureau has grown so rapidly that in January, desperate for space, it had to break through a wall in the Legislative Office Building and claim a second room. Speaking of the AJC's population explosion, Richard Hyatt, a part-time Capitol reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, says: "There are just so many of them now. One day I saw a sight; I saw two AJC reporters introduce themselves to one another."
We happened to visit Atlanta during the first week of April, when the azaleas were in bloom on the Capitol grounds. The war in Iraq was at its height, and other urgent stories, including the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), were competing for space in the paper. But state government news more than held its own. The bureau produced about six substantive bylined stories a day that week, plus some briefs. Many of the stories made the metro front, and two made page one. And this was a week when the legislature was in recess.
"It's amazing that we haven't backed off our coverage at all, haven't lost any space," Salzer said. "There are probably not many newspapers in the country that would maintain their politics and government coverage during the war like we have. I think that's remarkable."
But it isn't just a case of more reporters, more copy and better play. The AJC has developed a real taste for hell-raising, exposing, among other things, abuses in the child protective services system, corrupt practices at the state parole board and lawmakers who have used their political contributions to buy themselves condos.
AJC readers get a vivid picture now of the ways in which some of their elected representatives are compromised and bought off by special interests. To illustrate the fact that Georgia ethics laws impose no limits on gifts that legislators may accept, reporter Alan Judd described the freeloading life of a state representative from Macon who had his dinner paid for every night by a different group of special pleaders--financial corporations on Monday, BellSouth on Tuesday, doctors' lobbyists on Wednesday.
Salzer and Henry Unger described how, moments after lawmakers had passed a bill weakening the legal protections against predatory lending practices, two state reps "walked into a pack of jubilant bank and mortgage lobbyists," from whom they "received handshakes, back slaps and even a hug."
And another reporter, Ken Foskett, wrote a graphic description of life at an Atlanta condominium complex where legislators and lobbyists mingle after hours, drinking and noshing at the Alcohol Dealers Association's hospitality suite. Life at the condos, one legislator said, is "kind of like being in a dorm with your classmates."
Salzer says he now hears politicians remarking that "this isn't the same newspaper it was a few years ago, that we are going to be more aggressive, we are going to keep a very close eye on what state government is up to."
Riggall, in the secretary of state's office, says he has enjoyed seeing more stories about the misuse of power. "When people are being examined and looked at," he says, "and open records requests are going in, and they're having to produce documents, and employees who want to blow the whistle have somebody they can talk to, it makes a difference in terms of how careful people are in the conduct of their business. There's just no doubt about it."
The Statehouse bureau also has reflected the wackier side of life under the big gold dome. When Gov. Sonny Perdue decided to lose weight by giving up his beloved Snickers candy bars, reporter Nancy Badertscher called Masterfoods USA, the maker of Snickers, and asked for comment. And after the governor urged state workers and legislators to join him in trimming down, Jim Tharpe and a photographer recorded the gluttony that ensued at a banquet where lawmakers and their friends consumed 600 pounds of barbecue, 30 gallons of rice, 28 gallons of potato salad and 16 gallons of pickles. "Officials pig out," read the page-one headline.
What's happening in Atlanta is not a national trend. The Project on the State of the American Newspaper has just completed a new survey of state government coverage, which shows a modest increase in state Capitol staffing at a few papers this year over last year (complete findings begin on page 47). But, overall, the resources newspapers devote to statehouse news remain low by recent historical standards.
This is true despite the enormous impact state governments have on people's lives. Budgets are running amok in almost every state, due to the stalled economy. With revenues down and spending up, officials are forced to choose between raising taxes and cutting essential services. As this article was being reported, various legislatures were debating higher taxes on income, tobacco, liquor and gasoline. And they were proposing to raise tuitions at public colleges, cut student financial aid, increase class sizes in the public schools, do away with property tax breaks for the elderly, eliminate hundreds of thousands of government jobs, close parks, drop bus routes and deny health care through Medicaid to large numbers of the indigent, elderly and disabled.
Schools in California were preparing to lay off up to 25,000 teachers due to cuts in state funding. Texas moved to make as many as 275,000 fewer children eligible for health care. And a number of states were laying off prison guards, giving early releases to convicted felons and even closing prisons.
"If there's a year to emphasize state government coverage, this is it," says Scott Rothschild, who covers the Kansas Statehouse for the Lawrence Journal-World.
Still, most of the newspapers that stopped sending reporters to the legislature in recent years have not added them back. And many that had shrunk their staffs were not very well prepared for such major stories.
Covering a state budget is no easy task. The budget usually comes to reporters in the form of a phone book-size document filled with columns of numbers and small print. "It's just monstrous," says Holly Heyser, state government editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Heyser has organized panels on budget coverage at journalism seminars, and she is planning to offer more such instruction at the annual conference of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors when it meets in Minneapolis in August. Heyser advises journalists to prepare so as not to be at the mercy of staged press conferences and slanted press releases. "You need to track this data on your own if you can," she says. "I always plug stuff into spreadsheets--year-over-year comparisons--and then you can compare what percentage of the budget goes to education, for example, and how that changes over time." She also suggests getting to know "people who are complete budget geeks in your state – a legislative analyst, someone in the governor's office, someone who can teach you how to read revenue reports and what they mean."
But how many reporters have the time? Heyser runs a staff of four at the Capitol in St. Paul, which was expanded to seven during this year's legislative session. This allowed her to put a reporter on the budget full time without sacrificing other vital stories. She also assigned a reporter this year to write about state government from the outside – from the vantage point of people affected by the changes in policy.
Bureaus like hers, that are well staffed and organized, have feasted on this year's budget crises. But in smaller offices, compromises must be made. As we spoke with statehouse reporters across the country this year, we could not help noticing how much more breathless and pressed for time many of them seemed.
"It's been a string of 55- or 58-hour weeks," said Gary Scharrer, the El Paso Times' lone reporter in Austin. "That normally doesn't happen until the last couple of weeks of the session."
Dennis J. Willard of the Akron Beacon Journal, whose bureau shrank two years ago from two reporters to one, said he had been dashing around the Capitol trying to keep up. "I'm in the best shape of my life," he said. "I'm doing a marathon from one event to another."
Tom Humphrey works for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, another paper that has scaled back to a single reporter in recent years. With a smaller Statehouse press corps, he says, the reporters "wind up hitting the high spots pretty well, but you don't have time to dig below the surface of most issues."
The AJC has no such problems. At the moment, it is probably making more ambitious improvements in its coverage than any other newspaper in the country. This is due mainly to the arrival, two years ago, of Julia Wallace.
Wallace, 46, is a woman of relentless energy who smiles a lot and talks with her hands. She likes to tell people about the first time she ever worked in Atlanta, which was 1977, as a summer intern from Northwestern University. At the end of that summer, someone told her, "You did a great job. Go get some experience and maybe someday you can come back here."
Which she did. She was a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald and held various jobs at USA Today before becoming managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times; executive editor of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon; and ME of the Arizona Republic. It was from there, in January 2001, that she was hired as managing editor in Atlanta.
While everyone thought that Martin would soon retire as the paper's top editor, Wallace says she had no commitment that she would be the one to replace him. By the time she did, though, last July, she had already begun revitalizing the place. In July 2001, she announced to the staff that the paper was not as good as it ought to be, and that she was launching a campaign to improve it. She began with a wholesale restructuring of newsroom jobs, eventually moving about 100 people (20 percent of the staff) to new positions.
"My assessment when I came in as ME is that the paper had a lot of fabulous things about it," she says. "It has been an innovative paper over the years, was chock full of good stuff. You would find things on page B6 of the AJC that you wouldn't find in any other paper. But the closer to the front you got, the less consistent it got."
People had been pointing out for years that something was wrong with the AJC's placement of stories. The most important, interesting news (especially if it related to government) was often buried inside, while too much fluff ran on page one. Jim Galloway, who now covers the governor's office but was a line editor during the 1990s, says part of the problem stemmed from the paper's philosophy on story display. As he explains it, the paper was trying to "hold stories to around 14 inches, or 18 maximum on a section front" to keep from jumping. (Martin hated jumps.) If a story absolutely required more space, rather than jump it, the editors preferred to put a short version on page one with a "refer" to a fuller version inside. This meant a lot of extra rewriting and retooling.
"So you didn't want to be on the front," Galloway explains. "When I told a reporter he was going on the front page, there was just this dead silence. So the editor and reporter might conspire to underplay the story, so they wouldn't have to go through that."
The AJC began relaxing its no-jump policy a few years ago.
The paper's philosophy also required editors to strive for a certain mix on page one--not too much of this, not too little of that, something light and quirky if possible--and this, too, knocked important stories inside.
"This place had a very powerful feeling of a tuna canning factory in terms of production," says Bert Roughton, who was then a reporter but now, after Wallace's reorganization, is the metro editor. "Stories seemed to be things on a conveyor belt that we were trying to package and put someplace, rather than the wonderful pleasure they ought to be to journalists."
Beyond all that, the paper had simply lost interest in government. Galloway recalls with dismay the time the editors refused to run an election story out front on Election Day. And when the sheriff of Fulton County was indicted, he says, "We couldn't get it on the front page. It just stunned everyone."
Ron Martin, who remains at parent Cox working on special projects for the company, argues that the AJC's statehouse coverage
hasn't really changed that much. "I don't agree that it's different from what we've been doing in the past," he says. Although the Capitol bureau had far fewer reporters in the 1990s, he says that many reporters on other beats were available to chip in as needed. "They weren't positioned in a bureau in the state Capitol per se, but it was a part of their charge to keep an eye on the state government."
He attributes the recent increase in space for Statehouse news to an extraordinary set of circumstances at the Capitol this year. The state has its first Republican governor in 130 years, the budget is in serious trouble, and several especially emotional issues have arisen, including a dispute over whether the state's flag should be based on the Confederate battle flag, which has long been associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Martin says he thinks the paper's coverage of these issues "has been outstanding."
Wallace refuses to criticize her predecessor in any way. In fact, she calls him "one of the more creative and innovative people in journalism." Still, she says that soon after she arrived in Atlanta, she realized that the AJC needed a new emphasis on hard news, beat reporting and enterprise. This meant creating some new beats, eliminating others, and redefining still more. "For example, we said we really don't want as much crime news as we have in the paper. We're not going to be TV," she says. "But we looked at our metro staff, and 15 percent of our metro staff were cop reporters. So we said, let's use those people in other ways."
The people whose beats were changed had to reapply for their jobs, or for some other job they might prefer. "It clearly was painful for some people," Wallace says. "For some other people it was a great experience. It gave them a chance to do the beat they'd always dreamed of."
Under the grand plan, everyone was supposed to be in new jobs on September 4, 2001. "Everybody was just beginning to feel comfortable, just settling in," she says, "and then September 11 happened and we changed everything again."
At this point, without increasing the size of the staff, Wallace has succeeded in strengthening three things she considers especially important: the paper's online operations, enterprise and investigative reporting, and state government coverage. The last two categories are intertwined, because most of the paper's best investigative stories seem to deal, in one way or another, with state government.
State government coverage also plays a strategic role at the AJC, says Wallace, because it affects all of the paper's readers, no matter where they live. "Atlanta's metro area has 20 counties, and who knows how many jurisdictions. State government is one of the few unifying pieces."
This is especially important considering that the AJC does only a minimal amount of zoning for local news.
The new ME, Klibanoff, understands state government news and feels a kinship with those who cover it because of his own early days as a Statehouse reporter in Mississippi, days he remembers as "wonderful." He sees the AJC's emphasis on such coverage as a kind of counterattack against the prejudices of many news executives around the country in recent years.
"There was a period of time," he says, "when there was this attitude that the public hates politicians and they're bored with government, so let's quit covering it, and let's find other things that they're interested in, like Jennifer Lopez or whatever. And they did it.
"You know what suffered? In my view, the decline of investigative journalism is directly related to the reduction of coverage of state government, because some of the juiciest stories come out of statehouse coverage. Many of the conflict-of-interest stories that I consider to be ripe for investigative reporting come out of covering the government."
By last fall, the word was out in the newsroom that coverage of the 2003 legislative session would probably be on a larger scale than ever before. "We'd heard for about a year," Roughton says, "that we want to be a good newspaper, a serious newspaper. The issues that are important to people are what we need to cover. We need to understand government. We need to hold people accountable."
The editors have been reinforcing the message ever since--by the space they set aside for state government news, the prominent play they give it, and the number of reporters assigned to cover it. As this year's legislative session drew to a close, the paper supplemented the regular statehouse crew with a flood of additional troops, including various beat reporters. On April 15, the final day of the session, the AJC had a total of 15 reporters at the statehouse. They produced approximately four pages of copy for the next day's paper, and an equal amount for the following Sunday.
Klibanoff says the paper still has a long way to go, "and I can't tell you how excited I am about next year, and the next year after that. Because we're all going to get better."
And of course the idea is that, over time, the new approach will spread far and wide throughout the paper.
It's an approach, says Roughton, that "certainly matches where my gut is, and I think matched where the guts are of the people in our legislative coverage. I think for all of us it was an act of liberation. Instead of being an impediment, the newspaper's higher editors are going to be a liberating force." ###