Reloading at the Statehouse
As traditional news organizations shed state government reporters, a wide array of innovative startups is rising to fill the gap.
By Mark Lisheron
Like kids who had memorized every slight, every insult, every threat leading up to a great schoolyard brawl, the New Jersey Statehouse press corps packed Gov. Chris Christie's outer office on an evening in late May, waiting.
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
Through the glass doors charged Stephen Sweeney, the thick-necked ironworker organizer and state Senate president, carrying in his fist two bills passed just minutes before by the fellow Democrats flanking him. Sweeney insisted that this most theatrical hand delivery of the so-called millionaire's tax to a Republican governor sworn to veto the bills was not in any way to be construed as theater.
After keeping Sweeney waiting for a few theatrical minutes of his own, Christie emerged from his office with his own entourage. "Senator, I was wondering what took you so long," Christie said to Sweeney, smiling and breaking up the room. "I didn't want to keep you waiting," Sweeney replied to a small wave of laughter.
Christie told Sweeney he was sending the bills back without his approval. Sweeney promised he would be back after getting enough support to override the governor. "We'll see," Christie said. Sweeney and his allies turned to leave, and that was that.
The story was a big one, top of page one the next morning in Newark's Star-Ledger and almost every press outlet in the region. But it was the promise of the big political fight that had filled the room. Rarely could you count on this many reporters at the Statehouse, even for some of the big stories.
In a few significant, if depressing, ways, this was a one-act dramatization of state government coverage in America today. Coverage that people working under capitol domes, inside newsrooms, with good government groups and in universities think has been rough-sanded to the raw surface of cataclysmic clashes among politicians, parties and factions and the relentless handicapping by poll of the combatants.
The answer as to why this has happened is, on the surface, simple. As AJR has reported since 1998, there are dramatically fewer reporters covering state legislatures. A little more than a year ago, an AJR survey of newspapers found 355 full-time staff writers covering their state capitols, nearly a third fewer than the 524 in AJR's 2003 survey. (See "Statehouse Exodus," April/May 2009.)
With fewer reporters, the argument goes, the first to vanish are the stories that tell readers what elected officials do when they aren't cataclysmically clashing and why the readers should care. And with those stories goes one of the important connections between the citizen and his or her government.
Dozens of articles have been written in the past couple of years about withering statehouse coverage and the threat to our democracy. Pick your own hand-wringing headline: "As Capitol Press Corps Shrinks, Government Controls Message" from the Oklahoma Gazette; "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)" in The New Republic; or, rather bluntly, "The Capitol Press Corpse" in Texas Monthly.
Dunstan "Dusty" McNichol added his voice to the grim chorus a year ago when he complained about a New Jersey Statehouse press corps in steep decline.
In a guest editorial for Alan D. Mutter's blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com), he called the ability of the press corps in the Statehouse in Trenton to cover even basic news compromised.
"How can public debate be informed," he wrote, "or even initiated, without a sustainable press corps capable of covering and broadcasting credible information on important public policy developments?"
McNichol's words carried weight. He was part of a team of Star-Ledger reporters who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for stories that prompted the resignation of Gov. James McGreevey. McNichol remains one of the most respected and most unprepossessing reporters in the New Jersey Statehouse. He was one of the familiar faces Christie called on by name after the mellow drama with Sweeney.
There were other familiar faces there that night. Tom Johnson, who had roamed the Statehouse halls for 18 years for the Star-Ledger. Kevin McArdle, a Statehouse correspondent in radio for nearly eight years. Like McNichol, who is now a star for Bloomberg News in Trenton, they were doing what they had always done in a new and different way.
Johnson and another Star-Ledger veteran, John Mooney, were putting the finishing touches on a new Web site, NJ Spotlight, whose slogan is "Where Issues Matter" and whose germination came from an idea of McNichol. Johnson and Mooney, with nearly 50 years of New Jersey newspaper experience between them, have received $700,000 in foundation seed money for reporting on issues like education, energy, the environment and health care.
Millennium Radio, with a dozen New Jersey stations, many of them of the talk variety, believed so strongly in the market for Statehouse news that it tapped McArdle to handle its radio reporting and help develop a news Web site for the flagship station, NJ101.5 FM ("Not New York. Not Philadelphia. Proud to be New Jersey"). Not long ago, Millennium launched a second site, Statehousesteps.com, an aggregator for Capitol news featuring blogs by McArdle and others.
In New Jersey and across the country, people are attempting to write a second act to the statehouse set piece. David Royse and the staff of the News Service of Florida selling pricey subscriptions for blanket coverage of the Statehouse in Tallahassee. Mark Katches and his California Watch team trying to move from a nonprofit to some other sustainable model in Sacramento. Evan Smith and Austin's Texas Tribune, whose already substantial staff is growing with an enviable sponsorship plan.
There are the watchdog Web sites, most of them nonprofit. There are the sites devoted to training citizens in the basics of reporting to keep an eye on their state governments. There are the bloggers, the commentators, the provocateurs and the bomb-throwers.
And in spite of having lost about 90 news department employees, the Associated Press has 75 full-time and 30 part-time bureau correspondents, and has made it a priority to keep at least one full-time staffer in every state capital, says Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes, himself a statehouse veteran. "We've worked very hard to protect those statehouse positions," he says. "I think the framers of our Constitution made it explicit that state governments were a crucial part of their democratic design. Being present in the statehouse is vital; it isn't an option."
The framers didn't make explicit how cluttered and fragmented and messy this vital function was going to be. The pessimists are noisier than the optimists. Tiffany Shackelford, executive director and a founder a decade ago of Capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, says the toughest part of the role is convincing members, whether they have been put out of work or remain at a newspaper, that by reinventing themselves they can help reinvent statehouse coverage.
"I will be brutally honest: The mentality of a lot of journalists, in spite of what they can see right in front of them, is complacency," Shackelford says. "They look out there and just don't know how to make money doing what they do. I feel very strongly that for reporters to survive in this time, they are going to have to show some entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, I don't see nearly enough of it. It's either change or die."
The biggest question, particularly worrisome because it is being asked by people who seem to have figured out successful alternative ways to deliver statehouse news, is the money. Foundations, donors and subscribers have contributed to significant Web launches like Texas Tribune, MinnPost, California Watch, the American Independent News Network and the News Service of Florida. There is sharp debate about sources of funding and whether ideology will poison the news well. (See "The Nonprofit Explosion")
Many worry that with fewer trained eyes watching, those working in state government will be emboldened to make their own rules at citizen expense. And with the growing presence of the so-called citizen journalist, there is agonizing over what, exactly, are trained eyes.
For those who are changing the way Americans get their statehouse news, however, there is consensus. The alternative, to do nothing, is not acceptable.
"I think it's fair to say that this has been exhilarating and exhausting. I like feeling like I'm on the front end rather than the back end," Mooney says. "I'm surprised at how much I've learned, surprised that I would ever be in business. And I'm surprised at how much people are yearning for this kind of coverage, how much they want the spinach, maybe because there is less and less of it. It has been almost visceral with folks, asking us about getting this coverage."
If there can be optimism in New Jersey there can be optimism anywhere. Paul Starr first took up the study of what is lost when reporters go away as an alarmed reader as well as the Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton University. His scholarly and dire piece in The New Republic in March 2009, in which he contends that the very notion of journalism as the Fourth Estate or branch of government is in peril, is informed by what he has seen in New Jersey.
In a paper Starr directed and edited for New Jersey Policy Perspective in October 2009, Scott Weingart, one of his students at Princeton, makes a case that the press in the state has often been overwhelmed trying to keep track of 1,159 municipalities and school boards, each with its own push and pull on the Statehouse. The glut of government alone makes conditions ripe for corruption, Weingart writes.
That New Jersey is corrupt is taken for granted by its residents.
Its citizens have weathered the resignation of Gov. McGreevey in 2004, after he admitted that he had put his male lover on the state payroll as his homeland security chief.
An FBI investigation into a bizarre racketeering scheme involving the sale of human organs as well as money laundering, resulting in the arrest of 44 people, some of them public officials and rabbis, helped bring down Gov. Jon Corzine last year, although there was no evidence he was involved in any way. An AP account at the time pointed out that 130 New Jersey officials had been convicted or pleaded guilty of some kind of corruption since 2001.
"New Jersey's corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation," Ed Kahrer, the head of the public corruption division for the FBI, told the AP. "Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."
Keeping tabs on all this corruption was a press that has always been decentralized and overshadowed by two big media markets, Philadelphia to the south and New York to the north. In the paper "Less News is Bad News," Weingart charts steep circulation declines at nearly every newspaper in the state at the same time those newspapers were shedding reporters.
The raw numbers in AJR's 2009 survey say that no statehouse newspaper press corps was harder hit than New Jersey's, which plummeted from 35 to 15. Early that year, during a second spasm of buyouts, Newhouse's Star-Ledger announced that it would combine its Statehouse bureau with the bureau of the independently owned Record of Bergen County, keeping nine reporters and losing eight.
This spring, the Star-Ledger and Record staffs quietly moved into separate offices, and although both sides maintain the relationship remains cooperative and that Statehouse copy is shared, the animosity and territoriality is common knowledge on Press Row.
At the end of Press Row, just around the corner from the fire escape, is a plastic holder full of press releases stuck to a door. Just above the door handle is a handwritten sign, "Please do not lock door. Thank you." Below the familiar typeface reading New York Times Trenton Bureau, someone has taped another sign, "(the other) Times Trenton Bureau." Neither the New York Times nor the Times of Trenton maintains a bureau here anymore. The unlocked door hasn't been opened in months.
Gannett claims two reporters for its seven-paper New Jersey Newspaper Group. There once were six. The independent Atlantic City Press, announcing itself with a headline on the door, "Report: NJ is a Hellhole," still has one staffer here. While the Philadelphia Inquirer claims two staffers, the folks on Press Row say the paper is more likely to have a reporter parachute in for big stories.
The big news has been the steady growth of Bloomberg News, which started in Trenton with one reporter eight years ago and now has three reporters, including McNichol, and two editors stationed there. Johnson and Mooney have taken an office for NJ Spotlight across the hall from the AP, where most of the wire service's Statehouse coverage falls to two reporters.
A decade ago, the Star-Ledger had a 13-member Statehouse bureau (see "The Jersey Giant," October 2000). No one who has spent any time on Press Row pretends that the buyouts given to McNichol, Mooney, Johnson and about 40 percent of the Star-Ledger staff in 2008 and 2009 were anything other than rotten for the commonweal. Tom Martello, the bureau chief for the Star-Ledger (with or without the Record), is proud of the hard-charging, award-winning young staff he supervises. But he deeply laments the mood and the meaning of the goodbye parties he has attended.
"There are fewer people. And the fewer people with flashlights, the more dark corners there are," Martello says, from a top-floor bureau office a few blocks from the Capitol with a panoramic view, if one is absolutely necessary, of downtown Trenton. "I can't predict the future, but you have to be worried."
Martello's star is Josh Margolin, another of the members of the Pulitzer team, and a reporter whose work ethic, access to the governor and penchant for breaking stories drive rivals crazy. Margolin considers the Statehouse the Star-Ledger's highest calling.
Margolin has not been afraid to break with editors who have said publicly they believed the Star-Ledger's coverage of the last governor's race was up to past standards. He admired the hard-nailed integrity of Jim Willse, the editor who willed the Star-Ledger to be one of the finest regional newspapers in the country. During the buyout that would gut his creation, Willse, who retired a short time later, told his remaining staff they would not be doing more with less, they would be doing less with less.
"Clearly, there is less total coverage because there are fewer reporters," Margolin says, having invited himself into the office of Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, across the hall from Press Row. "Do I think the coverage is as good as it used to be? No.
"And about what you lose when you lose all that institutional knowledge at the paper. I'll sum it up by telling you that there have been at least two or three instances where I've called the person who used to cover something I'm covering to ask for help. The clips can only tell you a certain part of the story."
Drewniak sees the loss of institutional memory from the other side of the desk and the experience of having once been a young hotshot for the Star-Ledger, like Margolin. Drewniak left newspapers in 1998, when he began to notice changes in the business that worried him. He went to work in the U.S. attorney's office in Trenton, where a comer named Christie convinced Drewniak that his run for governor was going to be about public service rather than politics.
As press secretary, Drewniak says he expected the attacks, political and editorial. What he didn't expect was the number of young reporters who clearly did not know their way around the Statehouse, or politics, or, in some cases, a complete interview.
Reporters have, on several occasions, asked Drewniak to re-create the atmosphere of a public meeting they could not attend. They sometimes ask him for help finding documents. The questions they ask betray a lack of understanding of the political process, he says.
"I know I'm going to sound like an old, crabby, crotchety reporter, but you can tell that some of these reporters never leave the newsroom," Drewniak says. "Whether this level of laziness is a function of not enough bodies, I can't say, but I think some reporters are glued to their keyboards. I have to tell them I'm not going to do their work for them."
In his experience, Drewniak says he has seen a drop in the number of stories written from the U.S. attorney's office, which is distressing because they involve the kind of lawbreaking the press has traditionally seen as surefire material. And while there were plenty of reporters around when Sweeney and the Democrats came to visit his boss over the millionaire's tax, Drewniak noted conspicuous absences.
"What happened yesterday was a historic event in gubernatorial affairs in New Jersey history," Drewniak said the following day. "And where was the New York Times, the freaking New York Times? They have pulled up stakes and left the state."
Starr saw the abandonment of the New Jersey bureau by the New York Times as a bellwether of inattention in Trenton. As he became more committed to the research, Starr found that New Jersey is just a more extreme version of almost every other state in the union.
What he did not find, even after hosting a well attended conference to discuss the crisis of journalism in the region in May 2009, was a single or satisfactory set of solutions to the problem.
Starr believes that a European model, like the British Broadcasting Co., could succeed, but only if the funding comes from a dedicated tax rather than a budget appropriation subject to political whim. If the Federal Communications Commission were to open the television broadcast spectrum to broadband, Starr says, a whole new opportunity for endowed public-service journalism could develop.
"I think we have shrinkage in the coverage that's impossible to reverse," he says. "I suspect that what we're seeing is a shift to an earlier pattern in American history, a shift to partisan sources for news. I think there is going to have to be an education process to let the public know that journalism, which was once taking care of itself, is not doing it anymore. I suspect that we are going to see a lot more experimentation."
The experimenting in New Jersey begins with but isn't restricted to NJ Spotlight. At one of the wakes for departing Star-Ledger reporters, McNichol told Mooney he had an idea for how to remain in the news business. Rather than try to re-create a smaller version of a newsroom online and hope that an audience followed, McNichol said he thought reporters needed to be entrepreneurial. Reporting expertise on particular subjects had a value. The trick was to find the customers who valued it.
Education was a natural for Mooney, who had been covering the subject for 15 years. Tom Johnson was an expert on energy and environmental issues, which were likely to remain vital. Before he could join the team he conceived, McNichol, who had won awards for his grasp of the state's budget and pension system, was hired to cover state finance for Bloomberg. He lateraled his idea to Mooney and Johnson for free with best wishes and support.
The Community Foundation of New Jersey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation agreed to underwrite NJ Spotlight. News content is free; paid subscribers receive more focused information and services such as conferences and Webinars.
"From the beginning, you have to be thinking of a sustainable way to do this," Mooney says. "Foundations aren't in the publishing business. Things have gone well so far, and we're convinced that there isn't any less demand for this kind of coverage."
In Trenton, Bloomberg believes it has figured out that its customers are willing to pay for reporting that helps readers understand the relationship between business and state government. With its success in Trenton, Bloomberg is moving ahead with plans to staff statehouses in Colorado and Texas.
Of all of the new ventures, the people on Press Row thought the Web site development by Millennium Radio, with its emphasis on talk radio, to be the least likely. McArdle says management is increasingly convinced that its news side can drive the talk. Early in his career, McArdle says, he was an AP rip-and-read radio man. With the press corps thinned, Millennium saw an opening for original reporting from McArdle.
On the night of the millionaire's tax bill non-confrontation, McArdle worked five hours of overtime, producing the version of the story that would run on the Web site, three audio versions for 9 p.m., 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts and four versions for the morning cast on the half-hour. The newscasts promoted his online coverage, and the Web site encouraged readers to check out the broadcasts.
McArdle's reporting and his blog are also part of Statehousesteps.com. Its presentation is not unlike that of PolitickerNJ.com, founded in 2000, in its aggregation of information and its target audience of people in state government, with an interest in it or those who cover it.
"It's a force, a multiplier, but there is still only one of me," McArdle says, heading out after a long news night to play golf. "Never in a million years did I think I'd be blogging from the Statehouse. The way I look at it, optimistically, is that I'm stepping up to the 21st century. Along the way, I've had to find ways to be more efficient."
Good government groups in New Jersey have joined the effort to refocus attention on the Statehouse. The nonprofit New Jersey Foundation for Open
Government is finding greater public interest in its mission, to teach people how to secure copies of government records. President Ron Miskoff, a journalism instructor at Rutgers University and a former president of the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, says he thinks the public is well aware it is being shortchanged on state government coverage in local newspapers and on television.
"It's been a crazy last couple of years," Miskoff says. "I think the light has gone on that there aren't as many people in Trenton fighting the good fight. We are not seeing the stories, except for the biggest ones. It has gotten pretty bad. I don't know where America is going with all this, but I'm pretty sure New Jersey's going to get there first. New Jersey needs a better watchdog for its citizens."
Jerry Cantrell, founder of the New Jersey Taxpayers Alliance, wants to be one of those watchdogs. Cantrell is using donations to launch the nonprofit Common Sense Institute of New Jersey to do public policy research that would be available to citizens and journalists alike. Its mission statement, devoted to individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity, has the ring of conservatism to it, but Cantrell says the institute will be committed to nonpartisan research on important issues.
Heather Taylor offers a course to teach citizens the rudiments of journalism. Taylor, a journalism graduate of Rutgers, is communications director for a public service nonprofit, the Citizens' Campaign. Eventually, she would like to tailor classes specifically for state government.
Disdain for the citizen journalist movement among editorial professionals does not change the reality that, in many places in New Jersey, important government decisions are being made with no reporters in attendance, she says.
"I've heard the complaint that this is an insult to the profession," Taylor says. "I don't present this as an alternative to what the press does. I see it as offering education that will result in more robust coverage of government."
Michael Delli Carpini is supportive of Taylor's work. The dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a political scientist, Delli Carpini has spent a career marking what he says is the "decline in professional journalism and the sorry state of the public's political knowledge." Nothing in his research suggests to him that the traditional press will be able to recapture its role as the central provider of public information.
The trend toward local and national coverage and away from the state in the press, although not often noted, is reflected in the boom in studies of grassroots and local politics and global and international politics in political science programs at universities and colleges, Delli Carpini says.
"There is in academia the sense that teaching or studying state politics is so 20th, even 19th, century," he says. "Grassroots and global politics are hot; state politics programs are almost nonexistent. Let's not kid ourselves. In other areas of the newspaper, there is emphasis on the sexy factor, and, outside of the conflict and the horse race, burrowing deeply into some state issue isn't sexy."
If the roster of Pulitzer Prize winners is Maxim's Hot 100 for journalism sex appeal, statehouse coverage is Marisa Tomei: highly thought of, a little older and no longer on the list. Rarely in the past 50 years has straight-on capitol coverage won journalism's top award. Prior to the Star-Ledger's McGreevey stories, you have to go back to 1994, when two Detroit News reporters shared a Pulitzer for a check-writing scandal in the Michigan House Fiscal Agency that resulted in felony convictions for the agency's executive director and a state representative, and five prison sentences.
As swashbuckling as it sounds, Jim Mitzelfeld, the News reporter who broke the story, says the way he ran down the tip was out of the old days, more Betty White than Katy Perry. (See "Missing the Story at the Statehouse," July/August 1998.)
When Mitzelfeld joined the News staff in 1988, both the News and its competitor, the Detroit Free Press, were among the nation's top 10 in circulation. The Statehouse beat was coveted and glamorous, the competition for scoops brutal. There were nearly a dozen reporters covering Lansing for the News alone.
Mitzelfeld says he stayed ahead by working Capitol offices and people every day. One of the people he cultivated told him that, somewhere in the Legislature, someone was writing checks to cash. Knowing there were five House arms with check writing privileges, he made Freedom of Information Act requests for the canceled checks for all of them. All but one agency promptly complied.
At the same time, Mitzelfeld asked for and was provided by the state Department of Treasury a printout of all state checks, which included amounts, dates and check numbers, but not payees.
When John Morberg, director of the House Fiscal Agency, finally consented to meet with Mitzelfeld, his bookkeeper
provided what appeared to be a newly handwritten check register. Mitzelfeld then took out the computer printout, and when he compared it with the register, he found dozens of missing entries.
"At this point Morberg looked at his bookkeeper and said, 'Kate, get him the checks.' She said, 'You've got to be kidding.' I still remember the look on her face to this day," Mitzelfeld says.
For six hours over the next two days, Mitzelfeld created his own check registry that would later become a gold mine of Detroit News exclusives when authorities made the checks part of their criminal investigation and off limits to other reporters.
"They weren't writing checks to cash. What I found was 10 times better. They were basically writing checks to themselves, 1,800 checks, $1.8 million of petty cash over seven years. And I literally had a monopoly on the story because of my check registry."
By the time he and Eric Freedman, who had joined him on the many stories that followed, won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in the spring of 1994, Mitzelfeld had left the paper to study law at the University of Michigan. The previous fall, feeling good about his work, Mitzelfeld says he asked for a pay increase that would make his salary comparable to that of top reporters on the paper. His editor made his decision to go to law school easy.
"He told me if I had wanted to make money, I shouldn't have gone into journalism," he says. "He told me he thought I might want to look into something else."
There were other reasons. Asked to give a speech in the Netherlands not long after winning his Pulitzer, Mitzelfeld spoke of a newspaper industry that wanted to be more like television. Stories from the Statehouse, he says, were becoming shorter. Some never made it into print. In one memorable exchange with an editor, Mitzelfeld said that at 12 inches his story could include a Republican and the Democratic reponse. At eight inches it could not have both. "He told me to pick one. Honestly."
Mitzelfeld, who had been a federal prosecutor on loan to the Office of Professional Responsibility for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in September became investigative counsel for NASA's Office of Inspector General. Mitzelfeld says he has come to understand from the other side the value of a watchdog press. He has watched as the Statehouse bureaus for the Free Press and the News have been reduced to a total of five full-time reporters and as Ann Arbor, home of his alma mater, lost its daily newspaper, the Ann Arbor News. (The Newhouse-owned outlet still publishes local news on AnnArbor.com and publishes print editions twice a week.)
"The media plays a huge role in how an agency focuses on what it does. It's refreshing to see how much impact, in good ways, the press has on how government works," he says. "So when I think of the stories being missed in a city the size of Ann Arbor with no daily newspaper, I find that frightening."
Freedman, now an associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University, shares his Pulitzer partner's concerns. Freedman and several of his colleagues have applied for a National Science Foundation grant to begin a comprehensive look at statehouse coverage in all 50 states.
"The idea is to come up with a real sense of what is and isn't being covered," Freedman says.
Freedman, who left the News in the wake of the epic Detroit newspaper strike in 1995, says his alarm at the reduction in staffing stoked an academic curiosity about what the reporters still working in statehouses were producing. "My impression is that things are pretty skimpy beyond gubernatorial coverage," he says. "If you make the assumption the media has a vital role to play in the electoral process, then citizens should have better information with which to make their election and their policy decisions."
There is a growing sense much of it on the Web that stripped down state government news, the Sturm und Drang and the horse race, appealing mostly to political insiders, is undemocratic. Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of Texas Tribune, refers to it as the interruption in a great civic dialogue, a dialogue he launched the Tribune to resuscitate in Texas.
Perhaps no one in the country has made the notion of returning to issues-based state government reporting sexier than Smith, whose every move as editor of the new Web site has been watched for clues as to how to proceed into a very uncertain future.
(I've watched the development of Texas Tribune up close, as Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability Web site.)
From the start, Smith's involvement meant Texas Tribune would be paid attention to. In nine years as its top editor, Smith had put a distinctive stamp on Texas Monthly, long a National Magazine Awards darling. Although his dress and manner suggest Manhattan, Smith has a 10-gallon personality and is about as well known as anyone in a state with plenty of room for outsize personalities.
Watching the home run derby before the All-Star game with his son, Wyatt, Smith, a baseball fan of the New York Yankees sort, watched Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder screw himself into the ground time after time before crushing what Smith says was the hardest hit ball he'd
"I don't think of myself as a singles hitter," he says, pointing to a framed 8-by-10 photo of his new role model on a coffee table in his office.
The $1 million in seed money from cofounder John Thornton and the promise of millions more in corporate sponsorships and memberships suggested that neither Thornton nor Smith was interested in singles. Their ambitions were confirmed at least for their rivals in the traditional press by a leaked memo that became known as the Manifesto. The audacious mission statement was worded in a way to suggest to some that Texas Tribune would be making a heroic, if condescending, bid to save the moribund vestiges of journalism in Texas.
Smith says he regrets some of Thornton's hyperbolic language in what was an early iteration of a fairly simple idea: that people in Texas weren't talking about important issues because the established news outlets weren't teeing them up nearly as often as they used to.
There are considerably fewer people to do it. The AJR survey showed that every major newspaper lost statehouse staff from 2003 to 2009. The Houston Chronicle counted listings in the press books published by the state Senate and, in spite of reporters working for seven new outlets, found there were 53 reporters doing some kind of Capitol work in 2009, 30 fewer than 20 years before.
With enough cash to begin with, Thornton and Smith put together a staff of about 15 people. And with the endless newshole of the Internet, Texas Tribune promised to give its reporters plenty of time and space to deliver richly reported issue stories.
When I interviewed him in July, Smith was in the process of adding to the editorial staff and was expanding into new office space in the Tribune's downtown Austin suite. The Tribune has so far raised nearly $5 million. The site maintains more than 100 corporate sponsorships and more than 1,800 memberships. Smith dismisses no potential revenue stream out of hand.
The Tribune has so far shown a breadth that belies its promise of a more focused mission. The reporting has been strong in the expected areas: border and immigration issues, higher education and health care, politics, the lobby and ethics cases.
Through calculated hiring relying heavily on young but experienced and tech-competent reporters, the Tribune has made an impression in the creation of nearly four dozen regularly updated databases, the collection of hundreds of thousands of government documents and a sometimes dizzying number of audio, video and photo offerings.
Some veteran reporters who value their friendships in the Tribune office have sniffed privately that the Tribune has delivered a lot of solid singles and some doubles rather than Fielder-like bombs. But the site, by its mentions in rival newspaper blogs, in investigative partnerships and story publication in newspapers, is being taken as a formidable player at the Capitol in Austin. Smith predicts the Tribune will be able to show its full range of possibilities when the 82nd Texas Legislature convenes on January 11, 2011.
"If everything we are planning comes to fruition, there will never be a session as transparent, as broadly and deeply covered as this one," Smith says. "This is why we're here, and the session is no time to dick around."
As much as of his staff's success, Smith says he is proud of having offered a competitive spur to Hearst's Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, which combined their statehouse bureaus in 2007, and Belo's Dallas Morning News.
Smith is particularly impressed by Cox's Austin American-Statesman (disclosure: I used to work there), which lost bureau staff in the 2009 AJR poll, but has since held fast, committing itself to strong issues reporting around the state budget and health care. The Statesman also won admirers for its partnership with the St. Petersburg Times to create a Texas version of PolitiFact, a news and graphic package that tests the truth of statements made by government officials.
"If your only goal is for Texas to be a better place, then the more good journalism there is the better," Smith says. "We were willing to assert, arrogantly and without question, that Texans want to have a public discussion, that they want a better Texas."
Mark Katches believes that, as in Texas, the Capitol is a logical focal point for coverage in a big state. California Watch, an outcropping of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, exists to do state stories that no one else is doing.
When Katches was reporting a decade ago in Sacramento, he recalls competing with 85 to 90 reporters. Today there are about two dozen. The Orange County Register's bureau is run out of one reporter's home, he says. With generous foundation funding for at least the next two years, Katches has put together a staff of 11 full-time reporters, three of them working in Sacramento, along with a senior editor, giving him one of the biggest Statehouse staffs in California.
But Katches, who built Pulitzer Prize-finalist investigative teams at the Register and edited two Pulitzer winners for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wasn't interested in staffing the Statehouse in Sacramento waiting to report on the debate over the latest legislation.
"From my perspective, I'd far rather do stories that nobody knows about, that somebody has to respond to and fix," Katches says. "By the time something gets to the Capitol, everybody already knows about it. It's just a matter of covering what the Legislature decides. There are other people already doing that."
California Watch works differently than the other people by marketing its stories to the news organizations it is ostensibly competing with. When California Watch broke a nursing home funding scandal in April, it created eight different versions of the story so it could be picked up and used in different ways by several of the big state newspapers as well as television and public radio stations. California Watch did the same for a story about vacation payouts for state workers, and created a payout database on its own site.
"It's a big state, and you can't assume anything by creating one homogeneous product," Katches says. "You've got to be flexible, adaptable, tailor things for your market. It certainly adds a lot of work, but there is exhilaration in the bang you get for each story, knowing that the director's cut is always on our news site."
Evan Halper, Sacramento bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, says his paper has maintained its commitment to government accountability. For all of its corporate woes parent Tribune Co. is in bankruptcy management at the Times has identified Statehouse coverage as one of its core values, Halper says. Unlike every other traditional newspaper bureau in the state, the Times has added a reporter and a blogger for a total of nine staffers, including Halper, to what was already the second biggest Statehouse bureau in California, next to that of the hometown Sacramento Bee.
Because California is the eighth largest economy in the world, and so much of that economic activity moves through and around a state government that is often characterized in the press as dysfunctional, Halper says his bosses like the market for what his staff produces.
But Halper says the work of the Times, the Bee and California Watch is hardly enough. The San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the Orange County Register are conspicuous in their Statehouse staff reductions.
The problem has been so apparent that elected officials over the past few years have brought in former reporters for accountability and investigative projects in places like the Assembly Accountability Committee and the Senate Office of Oversight.
In theory, having reporters on the inside would give agencies a fresh perspective on what was expected of them, says Tom Dresslar, who left journalism after 13 years to do investigative work for the Assembly speaker. From time to time, former reporters have turned up ethics and spending problems, he says. But having government police itself is a poor substitute for an active press looking in from the outside.
"You had to go into it with your eyes wide open," says Dresslar, who is now a spokesman for the state treasurer's office. "And when you entered that building, you realized that politics was going to touch everything you do."
The threat of political taint bleeds into the question of whether the federal or state governments should use tax money to support news institutions large and small. How serious a hearing this idea will eventually get is anyone's guess.
The entrepreneurs coming out of newspapers, whose careers were shaped by the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the three others, are wary. Like David Royse, executive editor for the News Service of Florida, they are more comfortable with trusting their editorial independence to the marketplace.
The idea for News Service of Florida is so old it's new. For about a hundred years, State House News Service practiced blanket newsgathering in Boston, the kind for which political insiders and devotees would pay good money. When new ownership looked for a news market, Florida seemed to
The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times had shed Statehouse reporters when they combined bureaus late in 2008. Every paper in the state rid itself of reporters in Tallahassee between the 2003 and 2009 AJR surveys. Since then, the Daytona Beach News-Journal has pulled out of the Capitol altogether and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel reduced its staff to an administrative assistant.
Owners Russell Pergament, Stephen Cummings and Craig Sandler called on Royse, a pugnacious longtime fixture at the Capitol for the AP. Royse was impressed with the popularity of the Massachusetts service and surprised at how little of the success had to do with its Spartan Web site.
Imagine, Royse thought, a news service in Florida cultivating the same subscriber base the lobby, state employee and education organizations, law firms and advocacy groups paying more than $1,000 a year for a comprehensive Statehouse wire service e-mailed to the customer. Add to that, much of the same coverage on a modern Web site available to everyone.
Royse's most recent recruit is John Kennedy. After 25 years with Tribune Co., most of them covering the Statehouse for the Orlando Sentinel, Kennedy chose to take a buyout in 2008. Bob Norman reported on his decision and on the state of journalism at the time in his blog, The Daily Pulp, for the Broward Palm Beach New Times. "The Pulp has been a grim and bloody business of late," Norman wrote. "Reporting on the slaughter of the press in South Florida is like being near the front in war, hearing the bombs, knowing they aren't far away and could strike at any time. And the number of casualties just keep growing and growing."
Kennedy had spent a miserable year working for the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation before quitting in frustration to freelance. When Royse offered what amounted to a serious pay cut from his Chamber salary to come to work for the news service, Kennedy gratefully accepted.
"Working at the Chamber was like the theater of the absurd. It was the worst year of my life," he says. "I missed the paper badly and realized that this leopard couldn't change his spots. I love my job. I love my profession. And I was at the point of understanding I was going to have to sacrifice for it."
Royse says Kennedy will eventually be rewarded for bringing a crucial level of authority and expertise to a bureau staffed with hungry young reporters. In less than two years, the news service, with five full-time reporters, is as big as the combined Miami/St. Pete bureau, the largest in Tallahassee.
"I don't know if it's good for democracy, but it's good for state news coverage," Royse says. "Yes, we have a target audience that we satisfy, people who know what's in the bills we write about. But you can go to our Web site and know what's going on over there."
Mary Ellen Klas, one of the two chiefs of the combined bureau, who draws her paycheck from the Miami Herald, welcomes the addition of new coverage at the Capitol. And not only for the competition. She is married to Kennedy. Klas was not offered a buyout, but she says she would have gladly switched roles with her husband if she had known how much he would suffer when he was out of the business. She sits in an office where Kennedy used to work as the Orlando Sentinel's bureau chief.
"It [the News Service of Florida] is our competition," Klas says. "They are becoming a place of record for the Statehouse. It has forced us to be more imaginative in our coverage."
The Herald will also be pressed by the Florida Tribune, an issues-based Web site. Gary Fineout, a much respected former Capitol reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tallahassee Democrat, and a small staff provide original Statehouse content under contract to LobbyTools, a legislative tracking and news aggregating site aimed at the same readership as the News Service of Florida. As part of the agreement, Fineout carries the same content on his Florida Tribune.
Fineout is the most entrepreneurial of Statehouse journalists in Florida, having supported himself for years on freelance work. He considers his blog, The Fine Print, which offers his political analysis, another platform to promote the
He is, in many ways, the distillation of statehouse journalism today, deeply rooted in the traditional ways, restless, creative and excited. Fineout is pragmatic, having been part of the massive downsizing at state capitols across the country. His success is proof of a future for watching state government and a source of hope.
But like so many in the business, Fineout cannot be sure where it is all going. "I think we all recognize that this is an evolution we're part of," he says. "We're still discussing which is the better path to take. I try not to be too optimistic or totally pessimistic. I don't hold my breath for anything. The one thing I try to do is move forward."