State of The American Newspaper
Missing The Story at the Statehouse
State governments are doing more than ever. So
why are newspapers paying less attention?
By Charles Layton & Mary Walton
When Jim Mitzelfeld started work at the Detroit News, he begged to cover the legislature. That had been his beat with the Associated Press, and he loved it. But his Detroit editors discouraged him: It would take him out of the loop; he wouldn't get much support off in Lansing. "They made it sound," Mitzelfeld recalls today, "like it's not a great move if you want to make your name at the Detroit News." But he persisted, and finally they gave in.
Charles Layton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer. Mary Walton (email@example.com) is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.
Still in his 20s and full of enthusiasm, Mitzelfeld made a strong impression on Charles Cain, the capital bureau chief. "He was driven," Cain remembers. "He was persistent beyond compare... When he was on a story he could just be incredible." One time, Mitzelfeld heard that some lobbyists were taking legislators on a retreat to Gulf Shores, Alabama. He shaved his beard, cut his hair, put on a baseball cap and shades so he wouldn't be recognized--and turned up uninvited. He also took pictures, one of which showed a powerful Michigan lobbyist rubbing sunscreen on a legislator's shoulders and back. Mitzelfeld thought it was "the quintessential lube job."
But this was the early 1990s--a difficult time. With the economy in recession, news holes shriveling and editors seeking ways to cut costs, government coverage had become a target at newspapers around the country. There was growing disenchantment with state gov-
ernment news in particular, and Gannett, which owned the Detroit News, was taking the knife to statehouse coverage.
"They were having us crank out a daily story or two every day," Mitzelfeld recalls. "They wanted them short--six, eight inches, 12 if we were lucky--and then a lot of them didn't run." He argued that it took more space to tell both sides of a complex issue. "There were times when they'd say, 'We don't have room for both sides, pick one side.' " Sometimes the desk made him rewrite the top of an AP story so it could run with a staff byline. This might have made sense to an editor trying to pad his daily news budget, but to Mitzelfeld it was "a ridiculous waste of manpower," especially when he was fighting for the time to do enterprise stories.
One day he heard that the governor had frozen the legislature's check-writing authority. It pricked his curiosity. "I was sort of skeptical it would even get in the paper. But I thought, 'Well, I'll ask somebody in the administration about this.' And it was in the course of working on this story that a source, in a phone interview--after failing to answer several questions clearly--said, 'Well, there are rumors.'
"I said, 'What rumors?'
" 'Well, there are rumors that someone in the legislature is writing checks out to cash.'
"So immediately I said, Whoa! That's a big story if that's true."
After two weeks of digging into state computer records, scrutinizing lists of processed checks and chasing other leads, he established that staff people in the House Fiscal Agency, an arm of the legislature, had been writing fat checks to themselves and their colleagues. The fraudulent checks totaled $1.8 million.
Only hours after the story broke, the governor called for a criminal investigation. It was front page news for the next two weeks. Five people eventually went to prison.
For a while, Mitzelfeld was golden. But Detroit's enthusiasm did not last. He would propose an enterprise story that might take two weeks' work, and editors would turn it down. In time, he says, they even seemed bored with the follow-ups on the bogus checks. "At two months out, we were having to fight the battle all over again."
In 1994, Mitzelfeld was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. But by then he was no longer a newspaper reporter. "I got a sense that a lot of what I didn't like about my job at that paper was happening at other papers," he says, "and that's part of why I got out." He enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School. In October 1997, he began a new career as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
Coverage of state government is in steep decline. 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. At the same time, state governments have more power and more money than ever before. Their tentacles reach into every household and business. Everyone--political parties, academics, trade organizations, labor unions, corporations--has discovered this. Everyone, that is, except the press.
With some notable exceptions, newspapers are risking their credibility by failing to provide news that readers have demonstrated time and again they care about. But what may be most imperiled without a watchdog press is democracy.
Since Jim Mitzelfeld left, the Detroit News statehouse bureau has shrunk from six reporters to four. The Detroit Free Press and the Lansing State Journal have cut their statehouse bureaus from three full time reporters to two. United Press International closed what used to be a three-person bureau in Lansing. A capital press corps that had as many as 25 newspaper reporters in the mid-'80s now has 15.
In Georgia's Legislative Office Building across the street from the gold-domed capitol, a dozen offices open off the press corridor. But even though they are rent-free, only two are occupied year-round by newspaper bureaus, and both of those bureaus are smaller than they used to be. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Georgia's largest and most influential paper, had only two statehouse reporters--it has since added a third--in the 10 months between the 1997 and 1998 legislative sessions. Several years ago it had four. The bureau of the Morris Communications chain is down from three reporters to two. And the Macon Telegraph and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, both Knight Ridder papers, have eliminated their full time Atlanta bureaus in recent years.
Connecticut doesn't have half the number of statehouse reporters it had a decade ago. The New Haven Register and Bridgeport's Connecticut Post have cut the size of their bureaus, while the Waterbury Republican-American, Danbury News-Times, New York Times and Stamford Advocate no longer have full time bureaus at all.
Several papers that were once major players in state capitals--the Dallas Times Herald, the Houston Post, the Arkansas Gazette, the Baltimore News-American--have gone out of business. Tennessee's capital press corps lost two full time reporters this year when the Nashville Banner closed.
Today's statehouse reporters have less experience, as a group, than their predecessors. And turnover is faster. When Lesley Stedman began covering the Indiana statehouse for Fort Wayne's Journal Gazette, she was 26. "It's young in terms of experience and all the things that make you a good reporter," she says, "and there were a lot of other people here just like me." Now, with two years' experience, she has "gone from being the one who was asking everybody else how things work, to being one of the people who answers those questions."
The gulf between reporters and editors seems to be widening. There is often a sense that editors do not understand how state government works and don't much care to learn. Peter Nicholas, who worked for five years in New Orleans' Times-Picayune statehouse bureau before coming to the Philadelphia Inquirer, tells of an editor who wanted only stories about bills that were reported out of committees. This made no sense to Nicholas. He knew that the best stories were often about why bills get killed in committee.
Things are not all bad. In the '90s, computers and databases created reporting possibilities no one could have imagined a generation ago, and reporters are starting to exploit these new tools. The current crop of statehouse reporters is as bright and motivated as any previous group. And whereas in the past much of the writing about state government was undeniably dull, everyone's gotten the message that state stories must be interesting and relevant to readers.
In the last year, the New York Times has made reporting on state government a priority for its 24 national correspondents. "In the '60s and '70s you could stay on top of a lot of American politics and government by having a great Washington bureau," says Robin Toner, chief of correspondents. "You can't do that anymore."
Two of the brightest spots on the map are California and Florida. In Sacramento, 44 newspaper and 10 wire service reporters compete on a daily basis. The most powerful players are the Los Angeles Times, with 12 reporters, and the Sacramento Bee, with 10. The Bee's longtime executive editor, Gregory Favre, believes readers love in-depth news and that government beats "are at the very heart of what the hell we do." The Bee's statehouse reporters know that management understands their problems, because some of the paper's top editors started in government news. William Endicott was the Bee's capital bureau chief for 10 years before becoming an assistant managing editor.
Even with the Bee's large bureau, Endicott thought that some state agencies weren't getting the coverage they deserved, so he struck a deal with the metro desk to help out. "There was just no way to do it with a 10- or 11-person bureau," he says. Endicott wants stories held to 40 inches. "I tell them if they can't tell it in 40 inches, then they probably can't tell it at all."
In Tallahassee, where a press corps of 30 newspaper and three wire service reporters is large enough to stage a sell-out Gridiron-style show each year, competition is intense. The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, whose circulation areas overlap, are arch-rivals. But they must also contend with the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and some smaller papers. Lucy Morgan, bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times, says, "You can't know something a day or so and not put it in the paper without somebody else getting it."
Yet even Florida and California have had cutbacks.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News have gone from three reporters to two. The San Francisco Examiner and the Daily News in Los Angeles once had two reporters each but now have one.
The Miami Herald is down to three reporters from five (although one was an education reporter who was moved to Miami), and the Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee papers have all dropped from three reporters to two. "I've been immersed in daily stuff," says Miami's statehouse bureau chief, Mark Silva. "We're not doing as much investigative reporting as we should be doing, not looking as much as we could at who's profiting from things."
Nationwide, only 513 newspaper reporters--plus 113 wire service reporters, most of them with the AP--now cover state government full time. By comparison, more than 3,000 media credentials were issued for this year's Super Bowl. A survey of capital press rooms shows that most have fewer reporters today than in the recent past. And in most states, TV reporters have become an endangered species, rarely glimpsed except for a major speech or press conference. Sacramento, which once had a half-dozen TV reporters covering state government full time, now has none. Californians complain that the only information on TV about this year's gubernatorial primaries came from the candidates' paid ads.
Fewer reporters means fewer stories. In the daily crush, state news loses out to crime stories, lighthearted features and lifestyle reporting--all of which many editors insist readers prefer, even though research shows otherwise.
The biggest round of statehouse cutbacks came between 1989 and 1994, when, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the combined editorial workforce of U.S. newspapers fell from 56,900 to 53,800. Today's smaller newsroom staffs have been stretched even thinner by the demands of increased zoning, pagination, Web sites, computer-assisted reporting, civic journalism, new features sections and new beats. Beefing up statehouse bureaus is simply not a priority.
Even before the recession of the early '90s, statehouse coverage was under attack. In 1989, Raleigh's News & Observer bumped its state government column, "Under the Dome," from the front page to the Metro section. Ferrel Guillory was the government affairs editor at the time. After he'd budgeted a long list of stories one day, Guillory heard an editor grumble, "Who wants to read all this government stuff?" Another editor encouraged Guillory to press on: "It's good to have some dinosaurs around."
That same year the CEO of Knight Ridder, James Batten, made a speech that became famous in newspaper circles for its endorsement of "customer-driven" journalism. As a former statehouse reporter, Batten found the implications for government news regrettable. "Most of the best journalists I know were drawn to their careers by an intense interest in public affairs," Batten said. "They saw newspapers as indispensable instruments of American self-government. And they tended--we tended, to be more precise--to assume that ordinary Americans, all good newspaper readers, of course, shared--or at least should share--our voracious appetite for news of government and politics. That was a little naive. But today, that high-minded assumption is hopelessly inaccurate."
In 1990, this magazine, then called Washington Journalism Review, quoted a Gannett editor, James Gannon, as saying there were "pressures on editors to think more like marketers. If readers aren't interested in government and foreign policy, then figure out what they are interested in."
In March 1992, WJR ran an article entitled "Of the People, By the People, Bore the People," in which Carl Sessions Stepp reported that "newspapers nationwide have begun pepping up or cutting back government news, calling into question the raison d'être of journalism." Stepp quoted then Wichita Eagle Editor Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr. as saying, "We're covering a great deal less of the turn-of-the-wheel kind of thing. Nobody gives a damn."
That article, which read almost like an obituary, contained one of the last serious discussions of state government coverage to appear in the trade press. Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Reports and Media Studies Journal have largely ignored the subject since then, as has AJR.
Ironically, the last article Nieman Reports ran on state government, in 1991, predicted a bright future. In "Choice Assignment: State House," Dall W. Forsythe of the Kennedy School of Government argued that the "New Federalism"--the Reagan-era name for the shifting of power out of Washington--would generate more news in state capitals.
Forsythe's prediction may have been wrong, but his reasoning was right on the money. In what is now seen as the most historic governmental change in half a century, the feds have been surrendering authority to the states in almost every vital area of domestic policy.
Welfare reform may be the most dramatic example, but it's not the only one. While Washington wrings its hands over the decline of education, the states are spending four to five times more money than the feds to improve schools. They are building and renovating, reducing class sizes, putting computers in the classroom and trying to compensate for inequities between rich and poor districts. State education departments are hatching initiatives such as school vouchers, charter schools, single-sex classrooms. The national debates over the best ways to teach math and reading will be decided not in Washington but in the 50 states.
When Congress rejected President Clinton's national health care plan four years ago, the states took the initiative. Last year alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 26,000 health care bills were introduced around the country, and 3,400 became law. Today, state laws regulate insurance rates and hospital takeovers, ban "drive-through" child deliveries and mastectomies, guarantee patients more information about their HMOs, expand children's health insurance and force insurers to cover pre-existing conditions.
Having all but given up on Congress, advocates of tougher gun laws are lobbying state legislatures instead. Proponents of electric power deregulation have pushed through laws in 16 states, and the number will continue to rise. "The cry used to be, 'We don't need state government, we'll go to Washington.' Not anymore," says Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University, an expert on state governments and lobbying. "Groups today have to make their appeals state by state."
What happens in the corridors and committee rooms of state government determines whether customers can smoke in restaurants and bars, whether children can be tried as adults, where nuclear wastes can be stored, how many prison inmates will be paroled, how many minority students will be admitted to state universities, how difficult it will be for women to get abortions, how many mental patients and autistic children will live in neighborhood group homes, and how much pollution a hospital, dry cleaner, print shop, bakery, auto body shop, wood refinisher or asphalt manufacturer can release into the environment.
The state capitol is where legislators sort out every screwy, Solomonic dispute imaginable--disputes between dog groomers and veterinarians over the right to brush a dog's teeth, and between orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists as to who has jurisdiction over the ankle, a question that turns on the legislative definition of where the foot stops and the leg begins.
The states determine how much you will pay to get your car insured, how fast you can drive it, how much alcohol can be in your blood at the time, whether you can legally talk on a cell phone while driving, and under what conditions you can lose your license. They regulate foster care for children and nursing home care for the elderly, and they determine whether your 10-year-old child can legally buy an assault weapon (yes in Arkansas, no in Texas), whether you can hunt alligators in Florida (yes) or bears in New Jersey (no), whether you can keep your home if you declare bankruptcy (yes in Iowa, no in Oklahoma) and whether a doctor can prescribe lethal drugs if you are terminally ill (yes in Oregon, no everywhere else). Twenty-five states have begun their own meat and poultry inspection programs. The states even participate in foreign relations to the extent that they promote and market their products abroad.
States hold veto power over much of what local government can do. Albany decides whether New York City subway trains will have one crew member or two. Harrisburg decides whether Philadelphia and Pittsburgh can ban assault weapons within their city limits. When those two cities passed gun control measures several years ago, the legislature overturned them. The legislature in Indiana did likewise when some municipalities restricted the sale and promotion of cigarettes. And when the scholastic achievement of students in Newark, Jersey City and Paterson fell into severe decline, the state of New Jersey seized those school systems and began running them itself. In some states, a county, city or town can't even give its elected officials a pay raise unless the legislature says so. This year, a sheriff in Georgia turned down a $6,650 raise to protest that arrangement.
Everyone knows how the state attorneys general exposed the marketing practices of the tobacco companies and finally brought real pressure upon that industry. But since the 1980s, when President Reagan reined in the consumer fraud activities of the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general have been going after other big game. This year they forced American Family Publishers and its spokesmen, Dick Clark and Ed McMahon, to stop their "you are a winner" come-ons for selling magazines. They have also reached consumer settlements with America Online, American Cyanamid, Bausch & Lomb, General Motors, Mazda, Packard Bell and Sears. Now they are suing Microsoft.
"The reversal of roles in American government has taken place gradually and without much fanfare, but it has been dramatic," says Governing magazine's Alan Ehrenhalt, who has written about state and local government for more than a decade. "It has reached the point where few of us bother even looking to Congress as the primary instrument for resolving the contradictions and challenges of modern capitalism. We look to Congress to make noise and entertain us. By and large, that is what it does."
Partly because state government is where the action is, political parties are having trouble finding people to run for Congress. The New York Times this year reported that it had found a number of politicians who "said they could make more of a difference serving in their state legislatures."
"I think that state government reporting is the best job in the country," says James Salzer, Atlanta bureau chief for the Morris News Service. He notes that news happens faster in the capitals. "When a bill goes to Congress, it takes four or five years to enact," he says. "It's a long process. Here, someone gets run over by a rampaging truck, someone puts in a bill, 'Bigger penalties for rampaging trucks,' two weeks later it can be on the governor's desk."
Supporters of what's known as "devolution"--the shift of power from the federal government to the states--say the 50 states offer boundless opportunities to test ideas. This is the "laboratories of democracy" argument. As one political scientist expressed it, a home run is more likely with 50 batters swinging. But so is a foul ball. Last year, columnist Molly Ivins offered her home state as "a national laboratory for bad government."
She wrote: "Having a bad idea in your state? Come to Texas and see how it works out in practice. Three strikes and you're out? Watch Texas spend more on prisons than it does on schools. Thinking of making your tax structure more regressive? Come to the Lone Star State and see how it's done."
But even bad ideas make good copy, as Ivins continues to demonstrate.
While newspaper editors have been losing interest, the rising power of the states has not gone unnoticed by the thousands of corporations and organizations that stand to gain or lose. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller remembers that when he became a state senator in 1961, the only lobbyists were from Georgia Power, the teachers' union, the telephone company, the savings and loan industry and perhaps the railroads. "You could count the number of lobbyists on your fingers," he says. "Now you need a computer." This year Georgia had more than 1,000 registered lobbyists.
An AP survey in 1990 found more than 42,500 lobbyists registered in the 50 states, an increase of 20 percent in four years. Today that number is almost certainly higher. "Some estimates," according to the National Lobbyist Directory, "list as many as 100,000 persons involved in legislative advocacy nationwide." Dick Miller, an Illinois lobbyist, says he would not trade places with legislators today, considering how besieged they are by lobbyists. "They don't have a minute," Miller told Bloomington's Pantagraph. "They can't go to the restroom. They can be standing there, excuse me, whizzing, and there will be a lobbyist next to them saying, 'Hey, Pete, I have this bill coming, can you help me?' "
The amount of money spent lobbying the Connecticut legislature quadrupled in the last decade. In New York, where lobbyists have more than doubled their numbers in 20 years, their spending has increased 18 years in a row. In 1986 they spent $15 million; in 1997 it was $51 million.
For every lobbyist there is a special interest group, picking up the tab. California has the most--some 2,000 companies, unions, professional groups and assorted others. The Californians for Ferret Legalization have a paid lobbyist in Sacramento. So do the Los Angeles County Lifeguards, the California Check Cashers Association, Californians United Against Rice Burning, the California Motorcyclist Association, the California Native Plant Society, the California Asparagus Commission, the Mountain Lion Foundation, the California Dump Truck Owners Association, the Jockeys' Guild, the Hawaiian Gardens Card Club and the California Swap Meet Owners Association.
In most states, every election cycle sets new records for fundraising and spending, as special interests pour more money into state races. In New Jersey, spending for the governor's race and for 120 legislative seats exceeded $70 million last year. That was about $29 per vote, or as the AP observed, enough to treat every voter to a steak, a beer and a movie. In California, $1 million for a single legislative seat is no longer considered rare. And one unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, Al Checchi, spent some $40 million in this year's Democratic primary.
Much of the money state politicians raise--sometimes most of it--comes from outside their districts, even outside their states. But while newspapers have played up the contributions that national parties accept from foreign sources, most don't seem to care that their governors and legislators are obligating themselves to out-of-state interests.
On the Bureau of Labor Statistics' list of growth industries for the 1990s, state government ranked eighth. The states spend $854 billion a year--nearly $9,000 for every American household. State legislatures consider 185,000 bills a year and pass 25 percent of them. And all of it--the money, the bills, the lobbyists, the elections, the bureaucrats--is covered by a diminishing number of reporters. Carolyn Russell, a state representative from Goldsboro, North Carolina, says, "One of the first things I was told when I came to Raleigh was, 'You can vote any way you want to up here because the folks back home will never know.' "
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