Continuation of <i>Missing The Story at the Statehouse</i>  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   July/August 1998

Continuation of Missing The Story at the Statehouse   

By Charles Layton & Mary Walton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.      Mary Walton (marywalton2000@yahoo.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.     


A few days later, some 250 miles away, a newspaper with a markedly different approach to statehouse coverage is in the countdown to blastoff: opening day of the fast-paced, big-money 1998 Florida legislature.

It is 9 a.m., March 3, two hours before the governor is to deliver his State of the State address in Tallahassee, and St. Petersburg Times Bureau Chief Lucy Morgan has a small crisis on her hands. The photographer from St. Pete has turned up minus the tie he'll need to get into the House of Representatives. She calls reporter Peter Wallsten and asks him to bring an extra one.

One by one her troops arrive. Morgan has something for everyone: a quip for Julie Hauserman, who'll be handling death penalty bills, by virtue of having once written about an execution. "Did you see all that death penalty legislation?" Morgan calls. "You are the goddess of death." A source for Adam Smith, who is up from St. Pete to help cover the session: the lobbyist for the League of Cities is an articulate spokesman on an issue Smith is covering. A tip for Diane Rado, the bureau's senior reporter: a troubled legislative committee, where there has been a sexual harassment case and a recent FBI investigation, has just been abolished and its staff director canned. And for Wallsten, arriving with a fistful of ties, there's a compliment on a story in this morning's paper. "Hi, Peter. Good job on the telephones. Nobody else had it." Wallsten broke the story three weeks earlier that Republican legislators, acting on behalf of several phone companies, were proposing a bill to double local rates. This morning's piece was on the party's efforts to backtrack after a public outcry.

For everyone's benefit, Morgan holds aloft several Florida newspapers. "Here is the competition, if you're interested, who don't seem to know we've got tort reform, the death penalty and a few other things. Most are advancing abortion."

With Morgan in charge of four year-round reporters and a fifth for the session, the St. Petersburg Times capital bureau sets a standard for state government coverage. The Times is the newspaper most cited by other Tallahassee bureau chiefs as their toughest competitor. Only its rival, the Tampa Tribune, has a bureau as large.

Florida has seven newspapers with circulations over 100,000, and they're all fighting for turf, so they all put reporters in the capital. Even chains that scrimp on state government coverage elsewhere--Knight Ridder, Morris, Cox-- maintain a basic level of coverage in Tallahassee, lest a competitor gain an advantage.

Though several reporters for other newspapers have been there longer than Morgan, who arrived in 1986, none has her status as a Pulitzer Prize winner and associate editor. Morgan, who is 57, has an arsenal of sources, a rich knowledge of Florida government, and a prescription for covering the statehouse refined by years of experience. When Morgan started 12 years ago, the state bureau had two people. "One of the conditions I set for coming was that we add another person and bring up a session reporter," she says. Back in St. Pete, the state editor, metro editor and executive editor all once worked in Tallahassee.

"Everybody in my food chain knows government," Morgan says. "It helps us a whole lot in getting space and play for stories." During the session there's usually at least one section-front story or page one story with a Tallahassee dateline, plus a full page of copy inside.

Morgan's storehouse of knowledge is much on display opening day. From the House gallery on the fifth floor of the capitol, she surveys the legislators' desks, piled high with the largess of lobbyists--baskets of fruit, bouquets of flowers, tropical plants, candy, Girl Scout cookies, caramel popcorn and, from a company that makes devices for the elderly and disabled, a three-foot wood-handled gripper, the kind grocery store clerks use to fetch items from high shelves. On each desk sits a pineapple from a firm run by someone named "Piña."

But Morgan is more interested in the legislators and their guests, who are taking their seats. "One of the legislators embroiled in an affair with a lobbyist last year married her," she says, "and has her on the floor, holding hands."

Having claimed a chair in the House gallery and filed a story budget "downtown" on her laptop, she decides to track down the attorney general to check out a tip. She knows he'll show up on the fourth-floor rotunda with other members of the administration to wait for the governor. He confirms her tip.

Morgan is also sure that Gov. Lawton Chiles will be late for his address. But will he break his record of 20 minutes? Possibly. Once he was 25 minutes late for a ceremony honoring law enforcement officers who died on duty, even though he was the featured speaker. Morgan wrote a story, and for a week or so he was on time for everything.

As she waits to clock the governor's arrival, Morgan greets Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who was a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor on the Jeb Bush ticket until a hard-hitting Tampa Tribune series embarrassed her into stepping down. Among other questionable activities, the paper caught Mortham raiding the treasury of a state museum for $60,000 to pay for office parties and promotional trinkets such as coffee cups and paperweights bearing her name and the state seal. Although it was the Tribune's story from beginning to end, the Times got in some licks, too. Still, the secretary of state seems friendly enough. Says Morgan, "You may piss them off. They don't like the bad stories. But most of them are adult enough not to hold it against you."

Back in the House gallery for the governor's speech--his tardiness fails to set a record--Morgan recognizes that his call for a gun control measure is a milestone. As he leaves the chamber, she dashes down the stairs to get a quote. In the rotunda, she sees reporter Peter Wallsten and realizes he has left the House, too, while it's still in session--a mistake. Wallsten thought the session was over when the press gallery emptied, but Morgan knows otherwise. "Lucy always knows," Wallsten says.

The next day Florida newspapers are laden with coverage of opening day. Five stories and three editorials in the Tampa Tribune. Four stories, an editorial and a roundup of briefs in the Miami Herald. Six stories, a roundup of briefs and two editorials in the Tallahassee Democrat. But the Times has even more: seven stories, two columns, a roundup of briefs and two editorials.

Nothing can replace a bureau of smart, experienced reporters backed by editors who care. But a technological revolution is giving reporters everywhere powerful new investigative tools. Thanks to computers and to campaign finance disclosure laws in all 50 states, journalists have the power to explore the secret world of money in state politics, something previous generations could only dream of. This is not just an option for powerhouses like the New York Times, but for newspapers in places like Carbondale, Illinois, and Newport News, Virginia. As editors seek alternatives to "boring" governmental process stories, database journalism (despite a name that suggests geeks-at-work) has the power to rivet readers with accounts of how democracy operates.

For five days in February 1996, the Indianapolis Star and News proved the potency of the new electronic tools. The Indiana legislature had been "hijacked" and "plundered," the paper declared in its series opener, by "an extraordinary coalition of about 40 big-business interests, led by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce." By pouring millions into the previous year's campaign, this business coalition helped Republicans win control of the General Assembly and then "drew up its own legislative agenda and rammed it through." At the behest of the business coalition, the legislature lowered the wages of construction workers on state projects, gave corporations protection from product liability suits and made it more difficult for teachers' unions to raise money for political purposes.

When Republican lawmakers tried to protest or even debate the issues, the paper wrote, "they were reminded in private meetings to stick with the party--and the money that got them elected."

Some of these lawmakers had gotten more than half their funding from the parties' legislative leaders, who collected it from special interests and then doled it out as they saw fit. Legislators ended up more obligated to party leaders than to their own constituents. When a few dared to follow their conscience or vote the interests of the people back home, leaders saw to it that none of their bills passed, or warned that mavericks could expect no campaign money in the future.

This was nothing less than the breakdown of democracy, which is exactly how the Star and News characterized it. The series was doubly surprising, considering the source. The Star and News is owned by a conservative Republican family, the Pulliams, whose most prominent member is former Vice President Dan Quayle. The paper's editorial page had supported some of the legislation highlighted in the stories. "We saw our reputation as being a very conservative paper, very piously Republican," says Mark Rochester, the assistant managing editor for projects. "I think they were very surprised to see us take on the Republican Party in this state." The paper even reported that Quayle had telephoned a legislator who was wavering on a key vote.

Readers responded by bombarding the paper's "InfoLine" with calls. More than 2,000 people completed the survey form that ran with the series. Readers sent letters calling the lawmakers "greedy maggots" and "crooks" and demanding that they clean up their act.

In April 1997 the Star and News ran another such series, then another in August. In January 1998, the paper struck again, this time linking special interest money to legislative actions on health care, insurance, the environment, education and liquor. The stories conveyed the legislature's disdain for the average citizen, describing how big donors monopolized lawmakers' time and attention, while a constituent who gave no money was lucky to get a few moments of rushed conversation while walking down a capitol corridor.

One of the bills the tobacco interests pushed into law prevented cities and towns from regulating the sale and promotion of tobacco products. On the day the Senate was to override the governor's veto of this bill, a crowd that included several dozen children, their teachers and volunteers, gathered inside the capitol. They had come to see democracy in action.

"But the children and most of the volunteers saw little," the paper said.

"In the middle of the afternoon, when the vote was expected to be taken, senators recessed for nearly two hours so Republicans could caucus... When they returned to the floor, they handled some other matters as the crowd in the hall slowly thinned. By the time the vote was taken at nearly 6 p.m., the children and the volunteers had left."

Only lobbyists remained, and the paper described how, afterward, a senator who had switched sides to cast the deciding vote walked across Capitol Avenue and had drinks at a club with tobacco lobbyists and their allies.

Public interest seemed to grow as the revelations continued. The fourth series drew even more reader responses--about 2,500--than the first one.

While the paper devoted considerable resources--four reporters, an editor and an in-house computer expert--to its investigations, the idea for the project had come from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Backed by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, the center asked 18 newspapers in Indiana to participate in its project to collect campaign finance reports on file at the capitol in Indianapolis. After converting the reports into a searchable database, the center mailed a disk to each newspaper in the consortium.

No paper other than the Star and News made such extensive use of the database. In fact, the only others to run substantial stories were the Evansville Courier and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

A year later, the center used the same approach in neighboring Illinois and got a broader response. The Illinois papers agreed on an embargo date, allowing time for reporters to flesh out electronic data with original reporting, and on the same day--Sunday, October 5, 1997--a dozen newspapers blanketed the state with powerful page one stories, giving the people of Illinois more information than they'd ever had about their legislature.

As in Indiana, the Illinois papers found that a few legislative leaders collected huge stashes of special-interest money and used it, in effect, to undermine representative government. Candidates in Belleville, Illinois, got two-thirds of their campaign money from party leaders in Springfield. Only after they got to the legislature did the candidates learn exactly where the money came from and what was expected in return.

In recent years, newspapers in Virginia and New York have formed similar consortiums, sharing the costs of building state campaign databases. And in Michigan, Ohio and other states, individual reporters have assembled databases.

These stories have revealed an important political trend of the '90s. Across the country, state politicians elected with money from beyond their districts are having to choose between loyalty to constituents and loyalty to outsiders with different agendas. More and more often, politicians are being elected with out-of-state money. Newspapers in New York, for example, reported this year that for his reelection campaign Gov. George Pataki raised funds in seven other states and Puerto Rico.

The databases in Indiana, Illinois and some other states are available to anyone on the Internet. As more state databases are compiled, groups like Investigative Reporters & Editors plan to create a nationwide system. A reporter anywhere will be able to go online, type in the name of a highway contractor and see how much money that individual gives in various states, and what state contracts he receives. Or see where and how much a large insurance company or public utility gives, and what legislation is subsequently proposed in various states.

"We're trying to get sort of a one-stop-shopping place," says Brant Houston, IRE's executive director.

Reporters who work with databases often find that the way they look at politics changes forever. "I'd covered the state legislature starting back in '85, and I thought I really knew what it was all about," says David Poole, who, as a reporter for the Roanoke Times, helped put together Virginia's campaign finance database. "Once I got into database journalism, I found out I'd had it wrong all those years. All these big givers, I realized I'd never written about their issues."

Campaign finance, though, does not begin to exhaust the possibilities of database reporting. As public records are computerized, reporters find new and imaginative ways to analyze them. When North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt proposed a "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, Raleigh's News & Observer applied the proposal to state prison records and found that, if it had been in use over the previous 20 years, the effect would have been negligible. Only 91 individuals would have drawn the stronger sentences required under Hunt's bill. (The bill passed anyway.) Also in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer compared two sets of state agency records--one listing everyone who had done time in state prisons, another listing everyone certified to teach in public schools--and discovered 11 ex-convicts working as teachers, including some who had been convicted of rape, assault with a deadly weapon and child molestation.

For all its promise, however, the database revolution has yet to rescue the coverage of state government from stagnation. Where once the statehouse was a prized assignment, today it can be a difficult slot for editors to fill. Not only are many bureaus understaffed and under pressure to trivialize the news, state capitals are often out-of-the-way cities where reporters don't want to go. " 'Oh God, you're gonna send me to Albany!' is a common reaction," says Eric Freedman, a former statehouse reporter who teaches journalism at Michigan State.

The Sacramento Bee has trouble filling vacancies in its 10-member bureau even though the capitol is a few blocks from the newsroom, the stories get good play, and the beat is considered a plus for anyone on a career track. "When we post a state capital job now, we're lucky to get one or two internal applicants," says Gregory Favre, who just left as the Bee's editor to concentrate on his role as McClatchy's vice president for news. Today's young people seem disillusioned with government, he says, and journalism schools don't emphasize it. "And also," Favre says, young reporters "see glory coming to people who are doing other things in our business... They want to do the big blowouts, the big projects."

One might expect statehouse reporters to band together for mutual support. Newspaper people love national organizations. Education writers have one. Environmental writers have one. Sportswriters, business writers, science writers, editorial writers, foreign correspondents and investigative reporters--all have associations that let them gather, swap story ideas, hand out prizes and pump up morale. But there's no national or even regional organization of state government reporters. They publish no national newsletters, source lists or compilations of their work. They post no online directories that would encourage e-mail chatter or phone conversations across state lines. They don't even have a Web site.

Places like the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the American Press Institute stage no seminars for statehouse reporters. Arlene Morgan, a Philadelphia Inquirer editor who has dispatched scores of staffers to education and training programs across the country, says she never sent anyone anywhere to study state government. Ethics, yes. Environment, health care and business, yes. But not state government. "I swear, I don't remember anybody ever offering anything on how to cover the legislature."

It takes a special breed of reporter to cover a legislature, says St. Pete's Lucy Morgan. Someone can "be the best reporter in the world but look like a deer caught in headlights when you put them in the state capitol." Those who succeed "can write fast, think fast and can learn an issue fast." And it doesn't happen in a year or even two. When the legislature convenes, she says, "there's a huge village that crops up overnight. It's hard for us to learn who's here, let alone somebody new who's learning the lay of the land."

Lesley Stedman of Fort Wayne's Journal Gazette in Indiana certainly agrees. When she came to the beat two years ago, her only state government experience was a few months with the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina.

Stedman is one of 120 reporters nationwide who work in one-person bureaus. When the legislature is in session, Stedman shuttles between the House and Senate, shadowing members from the Fort Wayne area and watching for stories of local import while trying, at the same time, to keep an eye on the big picture. Her editors have talked about sending in an extra reporter for the session, but that hasn't happened.

"It's so hard being a one-person bureau," she says over lunch at the Indianapolis Press Club, where she goes to mingle with lobbyists, state officials and other reporters. "I think we should have one person who analyzes things like the budget and what it means to our area, and then someone who covers what some of these issues--like children's issues--mean to people in our area."

Seven of the 10 full time reporters in the Indiana statehouse work in one-person bureaus, and they help each other out. "Sometimes I'll be in the House, at my desk there," Stedman says, "and I'll leave for a while. I'll come back and there'll be a note--'They passed that bill you were watching. I have quotes if you need them.' "

On a typical day when the legislature is in session, she files one story on a bill or an issue plus a roundup of shorter items. She usually files something for Sunday as well. Stedman considers the statehouse AP bureau "an extension of my own organization. A lot of the roundups I do are partly from AP." Her editors, she says, "aren't afraid to use AP" on a story she doesn't have time to cover. She knows of editors who don't like to lead the metro front with an AP story, or who'll overplay a staff-written story while underplaying something more important because it comes from the AP. She appreciates that her paper doesn't do that. Because the Journal Gazette is small--with a circulation of 62,000 daily, 135,000 Sunday--she is modestly paid. She stays because she likes her job.

Stedman has it better than Brenda Rios, hired by the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to cover the 1998 session in Georgia. Rios had covered the Kentucky legislature for the Lexington Herald-Leader, but she was not prepared for the disorganization and secrecy in Atlanta. Neither the legislators nor the committees had paid staff who could explain legislation. Committee meetings were often scheduled, canceled or postponed without written notice. She was new to the state, working alone, with no colleagues to show her the ropes. "This is a system where you either have to know someone--a legislator to tell you what's coming up--or you have to have been here long enough to know how it works," says Rios, who has since moved to the Detroit Free Press. "You have to rely on lobbyists to tell you certain things."

For all the drawbacks, plenty of today's statehouse reporters love what they do. Mark Silva of the Miami Herald believes he's executing a public trust in covering Florida officials. "If the newspapers aren't watching them, nobody else is," Silva says.

And however much the job has been devalued in recent years, reporters like Lawrence Viele of the Morris chain approach it with reverence. One day, as she entered the Georgia House of Representatives, Viele had "an epiphany."

"I walked around the velvet rope and it dawned on me. This is the cut-off point," she says. "We are it between the lobbyists clogging the hallways and the public policymakers. Especially as money continues to more and more affect the process, it's even more important that we are here."


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