The Jersey Giant
The notion that people don't care about state government news has little currency at Newark's Star-Ledger, which has a 13-member Statehouse bureau. They have plenty of company: Trenton is the home of the nation's second-largest capital press corps.
By Mary Walton
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.
WHEN FRAN DAUTH TOOK OVER as chief of the Star-Ledger's Statehouse bureau in 1996, she had to choose between having a clerk or a desk. The Newark paper's Press Row office, on the second floor of the Capitol, had no extra desk and no place to put one. "I couldn't hire a clerk and tell her she didn't have anywhere to sit," says Dauth. And she couldn't very well dislodge a reporter. So Dauth decided to give up her own desk. For five months she carried around her belongings in a box, camping out wherever there was space.
Clearly the bureau needed more room. And there was another reason to move. With more than three dozen reporters vying for news, it was practically impossible to keep a secret on Press Row. The Star-Ledger was the first door on the left, and any source who stopped in could be seen by every other paper on the block.
Eventually, Dauth, who is now the paper's managing editor for enterprise, got permission to move the bureau into a handsome office building nearby. It was spacious, attractive, convenient--and expensive. But the paper's editor, Jim Willse, OK'd the relocation. Dauth offered to use the old desks from Press Row. That wouldn't be necessary, Willse said. Professionals came in to design and furnish the office.
When it comes to its Statehouse bureau, the Star-Ledger doesn't scrimp. Its staff of 13, enough to put out a respectable small newspaper all by themselves, constitutes the largest statehouse contingent in the country. And whether it's for a new fax machine or over-time pay, the money is there, says the present bureau chief, Ian Shearn. "When someone needs to travel to get a story done, I've never heard a discouraging word." And newshole is not a problem.
(OK, sometimes it is a problem. One Friday in June, as the end of the legislative session neared, the staff churned out 18 stories; two of them ended up as briefs.)
The Star-Ledger, with a circulation of 406,000 daily and 606,000 on Sunday, has made state government news a major part of its competitive strategy even as other papers in the industry, many regarding the subject as dull, cut back. North Jersey is a crowded newspaper market, and the Star-Ledger goes head to head with, among others, the mighty New York Times. But defying the conventional wisdom has paid off. The paper has a statewide identity few if any of the nation's dailies can muster.
"Readership studies show that there's a high interest in local and regional news," Willse says, "and the definition of local news in New Jersey extends to the Statehouse, because there's nothing in between your town hall and the state Capitol." New Jersey government is so highly centralized that even the location of a traffic light requires state approval.
Compared with other states, Willse adds, New Jersey is notable for its absence of oversight institutions. There is no auditor general, for example, and the attorney general is appointed by the governor, not independently elected. Nor has the Legislature been particularly aggressive in conducting investigations. "It seemed to us, or it did to me, that it's a very important role for a statewide newspaper to look at how public money is spent, how departments are functioning, because nobody else is doing it," Willse says.
WHILE NO OTHER PAPER devotes as many resources to its state capital bureau as the Star-Ledger, there has been a small upward trend across the country in the past two years. When the Project on the State of the American Newspaper made its first survey of full-time statehouse reporters in 1998, we found a nationwide total of only 513 (see "Missing the Story at the Statehouse" ). Over the previous decade, we discovered, the number of reporters covering state government had fallen in 27 states while increasing in only 14.
This loss of coverage came at a time when power was shifting from Washington back to the states at an unprecedented rate. While state governments were spending increasing amounts of the taxpayers' money, were being lobbied far more aggressively by an expanding number of special interests, and were tackling many of the vital policy areas that a gridlocked federal government could not address--such as health care, education, welfare, gun ownership, abortion and crime--newspapers had turned their backs on these developments. Not only had they downsized their capital bureaus, or eliminated them altogether, they had also cut the space for state news. Many editors justified this by claiming that the public no longer cared about government news--a claim that is unsupported by the evidence (see "What Do Readers Really Want?").
Although some newspaper reporters were doing admirable investigative work, only a handful of states still had a large enough press corps to carry out the basic watchdog role of journalism.
Last year we repeated our survey and found a slight increase, from 513 full-time statehouse reporters to 532. Our survey for 2000, just completed, shows another modest rise in the total, to 543. This amounts to an increase, in two years, of less than one reporter per state. But although the majority of statehouse press rooms remain seriously understaffed, at least the downward trend has been reversed.
The shift in power from Washington to the states is even more pronounced now than it was two years ago. In health care alone, state lawmakers considered 29,000 bills this year. Regulating HMOs has been a priority. Thirty-eight states have passed laws authorizing independent or external reviews of health plan decisions, and seven states have allowed patients to sue HMOs for medical malpractice--something the Congress in Washington could not bring itself to do this year.
"We are building a national health care system piece by piece out in the states," says William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. In fact, he says, "It seems to me that almost all of our domestic policy initiatives begin at the state level today."
New York's Legislature is a good example. It thundered to a close in June by enacting a hate crimes bill, new gun controls, revised sexual assault laws, a new money-laundering law, a broad package of school safety measures that included fingerprinting and background checks of school employees, a measure that makes doctors' malpractice records available to the public, fire safety standards for cigarettes, restrictions on how companies can use pollution credits, a phaseout for a gasoline additive that causes groundwater pollution, and a plan for health insurance for the working poor funded by doubling the cigarette tax.
In Massachusetts, doctors joined forces with other health professionals, senior citizens' groups and labor unions in a "white coat rebellion" to push for expanded health insurance coverage and provide a patients' bill of rights through a referendum that will be on the ballot this fall. The grassroots campaign prompted the Legislature to pass its own reforms. Dr. Bernard Lown, a Nobel laureate and leader of the drive, told the New York Times that a push to overhaul the health care system "has to come from below, from the state level; you're closer to the people, you're closer to their pain, and they're more readily mobilized."
Vermont, along with Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona, has overhauled its campaign finance laws, enabling a Progressive Party candidate for governor to run the nation's first publicly financed campaign, with nearly $300,000 in state money. Vermont also approved civil unions for gay couples. Hawaii became the eighth state to endorse the medical use of marijuana. Maine passed a bill requiring that the state's prescription drug prices be no higher than those in Canada.
On the conservative side, state officials in Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, New Mexico and elsewhere have been fighting tooth and claw over whether to teach "creationism" alongside evolution in the public schools.
Pound predicts that e-commerce and land use will figure prominently on future state agendas. At least 22 states have already stepped into cyberspace, enacting legislation to deal with Internet crime--everything from banning lewd proposals to minors (Oklahoma) to punishing people who spread computer viruses (West Virginia).
Activist attorneys general in a half dozen states have mounted an antitrust investigation of the gun industry. More than two dozen are allied with the Securities and Exchange Commission in an investigation of promissory note fraud.
Newspapers' response to all this activity has varied. Since last year, 16 states have seen an increase in the size of their capital press corps, while 11 have seen a decrease. Eight states have made slight gains for two years running--Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana and Oregon--while three states, Louisiana, West Virginia and South Dakota, have lost ground for two years in a row. (Only two newspaper reporters now cover South Dakota's state government full-time.)
Part of the increase in coverage comes from small newspaper groups. Literally. The Small Newspaper Group bureau serves five modest-size papers in northern Illinois. "We'd been thinking about this for a long time," says Len Robert Small, president of the family-owned corporation. "But there was always something that took us off track. This is an easy decision to postpone." The election of a governor from Kankakee, where Small owns the Daily Journal, was the deciding factor. After assigning one reporter to Springfield last year, Small soon became convinced that there was enough work for a second reporter, and added one.
Another modest-size chain, Missouri-based Rust Communications--whose president, Gary W. Rust, was once a state legislator--also opened a capital bureau last year. In the past, the chain relied on a reporter at its paper in Cape Girardeau, the Southeast Missourian, to cover state government, often by phone. The capital is a three-and-a-half-hour drive. "It was better than no coverage at all," says Joe Sullivan, Rust's editorial director, "but it wasn't like having someone on the scene." In addition to the new reporter in Jefferson City, Rust's Cape Girardeau reporter continues to cover state news, and the Southeast Missourian also buys at least a story or two a week from a veteran freelancer.
With the added manpower, Sullivan says, the paper has hammered away at the state Department of Transportation, which reneged on a pledge to build four-lane highways between towns of more than 5,000 people, financed by a 6-cents-a-gallon fuel tax. "They abandoned the plan, but they didn't abandon the 6-cents-a-gallon tax," he says. "We think state government is terribly underreported in the state, and if we expect people to be good citizens, they're not going be good citizens without good information."
Numbers don't always tell the whole story. The Idaho Statesman has doubled its Statehouse staff to two. But in another significant improvement, it opened a full inside page during this year's legislative session, for stories, briefs and a calendar. When the session ended, the space on page 4B did not go away. "It's an open Idaho page, where our stories still go," says Statehouse reporter Ken Miller. The lone Statehouse reporter used to return from the Capitol to the main office in Boise after the session ended, but now, says Miller, "for the first time in more than 10 years, the capital bureau is open all year round."
In New Jersey, the Star-Ledger is not the only paper that has committed substantial resources to its Statehouse bureau. Gannett's seven New Jersey papers are served by a bureau of seven reporters, and the Record of Hackensack (invariably referred to as the Bergen Record) also has seven, giving New Jersey three of the seven largest bureaus in the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Trenton Times and the New York Times each have three capital reporters as well, while the Press of Atlantic City, the Trentonian, the Jersey Journal and MediaNews Group each have one. In all, the New Jersey newspaper press corps numbers 39, second in size to California, which has 42.
The Star-Ledger's reporters find plenty to do. As the bureau's newest member, David Kinney gets the general assignment stories. "Even with the number of people we have, there are gaps," he says. And the paper's determined digging forces other reporters from other papers to stay on their toes. Former AP Statehouse correspondent Tom Martello says, "I spent a good amount of time chasing the Ledger...saying, 'What did the Ledger do this morning that I have to respond to?' " Martello is now the Ledger's deputy bureau chief and also files stories, giving the bureau a dozen Statehouse reporters.
When he was with the Bergen Record, Tom Zolper says the first thing he did after waking up was to check out the Star-Ledger Web site on his home computer. New York Times Bureau Chief David Halbfinger is frankly envious of the Star-Ledger's resources. He recalls a particularly busy Monday when he wrote two meaty stories, but "there were maybe a dozen stories in the Newark Star-Ledger, including a graphic.... I would have killed to be able to do that."
Most often, it is the Record's seven-person bureau that goes head to head with the Star-Ledger. But even with so many of its own people, Bergen is forced to play the role of the scrappy underdog. The Newark paper's manpower was much in evidence during its 1998-99 investigation of racial profiling by the state police, touched off when two troopers shot up a van on the New Jersey Turnpike containing three blacks and one Hispanic, wounding three of the four. The Star-Ledger forced state police to release records that showed that minorities accounted for 75 percent of the arrests of Turnpike motorists. And Gov. Christine Todd Whitman fired the head of the agency over remarks about minorities in a Star-Ledger interview.
Tom Zolper, now Statehouse bureau chief for Vermont's Burlington Free Press, was the Record's lead reporter on racial profiling. "That was when I felt the most outgunned," he says. "On even single stories, they would sometimes have three or four bylines and other reporters covering other aspects of the story. It was one against six or seven." Sometimes, though, the multiple bylines can be oddly reassuring. "You think, 'Whew. That's keeping them busy.' "
The lopsided odds make even a modest scoop particularly delicious. "Did you see Herb's story on debt in Sunday's paper?" Bruno Tedeschi, the Record's bureau chief, calls to me as I am leaving the bureau's warren of tiny cubicles. In the lead story the previous Sunday, Record Deputy Bureau Chief Herb Jackson wrote that state authorities had figured out a way to borrow money without voter approval, circumventing the intent of the state constitution.
"You'll note that we were the only newspaper that had that story," Tedeschi crowed. "We look for things that are slightly out of the ordinary. You didn't see that one in the Ledger."
TWO YEARS AGO, statehouse reporters were a beleaguered lot. Their papers seemed not to value their beats. Many of them worked in isolation. They had no national or regional organizations such as science, education and environmental reporters have. They published no national newsletters, source lists or compilations of their work. They posted no online directories that would encourage e-mail chatter or phone conversations across state lines. They didn't even have a Web site.
Now, though, statehouse reporters can turn to an online news service specifically designed to broaden the scope of their reporting. Five days a week, five reporters at the Pew Center on the States in Washington, D.C., surf the Web sites of newspapers and TV and radio stations around the country to produce an 11 a.m. compilation of news from all 50 states. They spend the rest of their time reporting national trends of interest to statehouse reporters. Their stories are posted, along with a wealth of statistical data and sources, on Stateline.org.
On a slow news day this summer, a reporter could have found a number of Stateline stories that would have lent themselves to local angles. John Nagy reported that, although these are flush times for state treasuries, "funding for day-to-day operations [of state parks] is often stingy and resulting tight budgets make it hard to attract and retain workers." Another story by Nagy revealed that a third of the nation's bridges are in need of renovation and repair, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and there was a hot link to that agency's report and to state-by-state data.
Tiffany Danitz reported that South Dakota had become the 13th state to prohibit executions of mentally retarded offenders. Clare Nolan described how states are using billions in funds left over from welfare to improve child care. Efforts to combat the West Nile virus were afoot in some 20 states, according to reporter Maureen Cosgrove. And Jason White wrote of the increasing popularity of ballot initiatives, allowed by 24 states.
Ken Miller of the Idaho Statesman says he visits Stateline several times a week. "It's helpful to see what other states are doing on topics that we're covering," he says. "Maybe it's a story we should be working on." Another fan is Linda Lightfoot, executive editor of the Advocate in Baton Rouge, who says she tries to check the site daily. "It gives me a sense of whether we're as issue-oriented as we need to be."
The center on the states is the brainchild of Rebecca Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia foundation that funds a number of journalism initiatives, including the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. It was her belief, she says, that most Americans did not realize that conditions could differ significantly from one state to another depending on the activities of its government. She says she wondered, "Wouldn't it be interesting if consumers could look at a report card on states, and the issues that impact citizens' lives?"
Welfare reform had just been handed off to the states, and she knew from her staff and from media reports that the states were grappling with other significant issues. "My guess is that there was a lot going on, a lot of experiments, including some perhaps that were not in the best interest of the citizens."
Rimel consulted Ed Fouhy, a former network bureau chief who at the time was executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. He agreed that state government needed more attention than it was getting from the media. Fouhy founded the center July 1, 1998, with a three-year, $4.2 million grant from Pew.
The center has sponsored five conferences for statehouse reporters. At the third, held last October in Denver, a group of about 20 statehouse reporters banded together to form the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, or ACRE, which has since launched a Web site (www.capitolbeat.org), started a listserv and attracted 200 members. It plans to hold its first national conference in Chicago after the November election.
Meeting far-flung colleagues "was an absolutely fascinating experience," says John Aubuchon, a senior correspondent for Maryland Public Television, who is vice president of the new group. "I think we were all very struck by the fact that no matter in which capital we worked, or how large our organization was, we shared many of the same problems. It was almost inspiring to know that we're not alone out there, and that we can draw on each other. 'Well, how did you handle this issue? This is what we have in Annapolis; has that come up there? How did it go down? What forces in your state opposed x, y and z issue, and how did the give-and-take play out in your state? Which interests provided the most helpful information? Were your bank lobbyists good on this issue?' "
WHEN BOTH THE NEW YORK TIMES and the Chicago Tribune have just two reporters in the capitals of their respective states, is there any justification for Newark's smaller Star-Ledger to field 13 reporters and editors in Trenton? In researching state government coverage two years ago, I had visited Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, which has a large and aggressive press corps. The St. Petersburg Times had the most influential bureau, with four year-round reporters (a fifth has since been added). It seemed to be a model bureau that covered all the bases. Which raises the question, is there such a thing as too many statehouse reporters?
"No," says the Star-Ledger's Willse with a laugh.
Still, what do all those reporters do? To find out, I spent a day with the bureau in Trenton.
IT IS 10 A.M. ON THURSDAY, June 22, a week before the Legislature must pass the 2001 budget. The first reporters are arriving at the Star-Ledger bureau, an L-shaped office with a grayed-out décor brightened by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking into a garden that runs alongside the building. Brian Donohue, who covers criminal justice, grabs his notebook and heads off to a committee meeting on a proposal to raise the age for buying a gun from 18 to 21. "The day starts slow," Donohue says as we walk along State Street, beneath a bower of leafy oaks, toward the gold-domed Capitol a block away. "But it never ends slow."
After the committee votes to approve the bill, Donohue chats with a legislator about a possible story involving the state's failure to garnishee the income of prisoners for a victims' compensation fund. "An advantage of having so many people in the bureau is that I can hang around and talk to people," Donohue says as he walks away. "If there were three people in the bureau, I would have to race off to another hearing."
It is almost 11 a.m. when Donohue returns. "The gun bill sailed through," he tells Bureau Chief Shearn and Deputy Bureau Chief Martello. Both editors wear glasses, but there the resemblance ends. Shearn is tall and thin, Martello just the opposite.
"We've never written about this, right?" Shearn asks Trenton veteran Martello. Shearn has been in Trenton just three months.
"I don't think so. It's an interesting bill."
I leave the office again with environmental reporter Anthony Twyman for a news conference on a package of bills to combat urban sprawl. We pass his Star-Ledger colleague Joe Donohue (no relation to Brian), jawing with a lobbyist in a hallway, no doubt checking out a tip that came in earlier via e-mail from an editor in Newark: "Kids: We're hearing that the budget contains money to study the feasibility of having either Newark Beth Israel or St. Michael's Hospital in Newark take over University Hospital, the state's centerpiece medical facility." Donohue, a nine-year veteran of the Statehouse staff, is riding herd on the budget.
Twyman makes his way to a room in the annex where the sponsor of the bills has lined up eight speakers to endorse his proposals. It is an impressive presentation for a news corps that, besides the Star-Ledger, includes just two other print reporters--from the Trenton Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer--plus one each from radio and television stations.
Twyman is dismayed to hear one speaker release statistics from a poll that shows a large majority of the state's residents want more open space and fewer shopping malls. He has no objection to the sentiment, but the poll, supposedly embargoed till Sunday, was the heart of a weekend story he had planned to write.
Back at the office, Twyman tells Martello and Shearn that he thinks he can salvage the Sunday story by including a lot of reaction. "The State Supreme Court has turned thumbs down to environmental impact fees," Martello tells Twyman, rocking back and forth on his toes. "We might have to ask you to make a few calls."
Martello turns to me. "One of the misconceptions about having so many people is that they don't have to work as hard," he says. "But the mission is bigger." Shearn, the bureau chief, is closeted in the bureau's little conference room with Brian Donohue, reviewing his sources for a story about a state police investigation into measures taken by the head of the parole board to obtain the release of an imprisoned mob boss. The Bergen Record is also onto the investigation, and the story won't hold.
It is lunchtime and the aroma of food fills the office. Settling down to write, Twyman opens a Lean Cuisine chicken dinner heated in the microwave. Kathy Barrett Carter arrives with a sandwich and launches into a barrage of calls about a Supreme Court ruling on a complicated solid-waste case involving municipal finance. Robert Schwaneberg, a legal affairs reporter, bustles in with a cup of lemon yogurt. He has been at the State Library, researching a story for Sunday on how other states approach some of the issues that have surfaced in the struggle over legislation to increase public access to government records. New Jersey's current policies are among the most restrictive in the country.
Reporter Dunstan McNichol had planned to concentrate on the school budget, his permanent assignment, but he has a tip about a new snafu in the auto inspection program that Whitman privatized last year. The program has been a disaster since its introduction, when motorists were forced to wait in lines for up to four hours, and every day seems to bring a new setback. McNichol has learned that at a meeting that morning with officials of the Federal Highway Administration, the state reported that 45 percent of its emissions testing machines don't work, raising the possibility that an untold number of cars may have unfairly flunked the test.
Four people from the Aviation Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey drop in to talk with the editors about Newark Airport. "Anything you want to do, just give us a call," says the leader of the deputation as they leave. "If you want to go to the top of the control tower..." It's 1:30 p.m.
A fax announces that the state is appealing a federal ruling that could allow a Houston-based company to run 154 miles of new natural gas pipeline through much of the state. The story goes to Twyman.
Brian Donohue finishes his gun story and heads off to do some research at the parole board. Joe Donohue is back from the Capitol, having established that there is, in fact, money in the budget to explore the idea of merging the hospitals in Newark. Donna Leusner, who covers health and human services, whirls in, breathless and excited. She has confirmed the same report. "Let's have a meeting."
"What's the lead?" Shearn asks.
"Eleventh-hour tinkering with the budget could have implications for the three hospitals in Newark," Leusner says.
"Sounds like something of a second graf," Shearn says. He doesn't seem convinced a mere study is a big story.
Leusner and Joe Donohue protest. If a Catholic hospital is in charge, will the one owned by the state still do abortions? What will happen with three cardiac units? What about layoffs?
"You say we're getting the language on this thing?" Shearn asks. Nobody has confirmed the proposal on the record, but a source is supposed to fax a copy.
General assignment reporter Dave Kinney is writing about a federal court decision that may determine whether redistricting will be based on the actual 2000 Census count, as Republicans in New Jersey and elsewhere prefer, or whether the count should incorporate sampling data that Democrats contend would reflect more accurately the number of minorities. "I'm not sure how many people understand it," Kinney says, "but it's important." He is also filing A-matter for a story he will finish this evening, after New Jersey's Fish and Game Council rules on whether to institute a hunting season to control a growing population of black bears.
Over in the Statehouse, two longtime Star-Ledger reporters still have desks on Press Row in what used to be the entire bureau. Dan Weissman has already filed two briefs for the "Action in Trenton" roundup and has turned his attention to a query from an editor, who hasn't received his state income tax refund and wants to know if there are delays. By coincidence, Weissman has just received a call about another tax matter from a reader. Weissman answers both questions with one call. He learns that the editor, who filed on April 14, is one of 600,000 whose returns haven't been processed.
Meanwhile Weissman's colleague, Tom Hester, came away from a four-and-a-half-hour meeting of the state's Local Finance Board with five stories on spending projects for local municipalities, a bouquet of news for zoned editions. No other reporters were there.
Suddenly there is a commotion in the hallway. Leonard Lance, a small man in a green suit who is chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, is holding an impromptu press conference. Hester makes a quick call to have Joe Donohue paged and takes notes until he arrives. Donohue corners Lance for a moment, but the other reporters see them talking and move in.
Donohue traverses a more or less continuous loop from the bureau to the Capitol and back again, checking out tips and looking for news. It is often easier, he says, to find someone in a hallway than to reach him or her by phone. At 5:30 p.m., on his final round of offices and corridors, a source tells him the proposed budget contains a prescription drug plan for the middle-income elderly. This is a good story, but he almost wishes he didn't know. He woke up at 5 a.m. with an earache. Thanks to medication the pain is gone, but the fatigue remains.
The paper has a big advertising tab to insert, and today's deadlines have been moved up. Back at the office, with 10 calls about solid waste and the court's decision under her belt, Kathy Carter asks what the deadline is.
"An hour earlier," says Martello, the deputy bureau chief.
"An hour earlier than what?"
"An hour earlier than before."
"What were they before?"
Says Kinney, who is on his way out the door to report on bears, "It's always a big secret."
THE NEXT DAY, Star-Ledger readers learned a great deal about the actions and deliberations of their state government. Page one bannered the auto inspection snafu; corruption on the parole board ran just below the fold. In the New Jersey section, readers learned about handgun sales to teenagers, prescription drugs for the elderly, a possible three-way hospital merger, the return of bear hunting, a possible new gas pipeline and more. No other news outlet could match the paper's depth and breadth of information.###