The Bradenton Herald, a Knight Ridder paper in Florida, has folded its Capitol bureau. So has another Knight Ridder paper, Fort Wayne, Indiana's News-Sentinel.
The Herald-Dispatch, a Gannett paper in Huntington, West Virginia, used to be renowned for the quality of its legislative coverage. But when the Legislature met this year, the Herald-Dispatch did not even bother to staff it.
In Michigan, three papers--the Detroit News, the Lansing State Journal and the Oakland Press in Pontiac--have cut the size of their statehouse bureaus.
So have three major papers in Ohio: the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland's Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal. In addition, the Brown Publishing Co., which owns 13 Ohio dailies, has abolished its one-person Capitol bureau. All told, Ohio now has five fewer reporters than it had two years ago to keep watch on the state government.
In the last two years, all across the country, state government news--one of newspapers' basic responsibilities--has suffered mightily. States large and small have been equally vulnerable. California is down from 44 full-time Capitol reporters to 40. Texas has fallen from 33 to 27, Florida from 32 to 28, Indiana from 11 to eight, Kentucky from nine to seven, Nevada from five to four.
These numbers come from the latest survey of state capitol coverage by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. Our survey discovered that 31 state capitols have fewer newspaper reporters this year than they had two years ago. The number of reporters rose slightly in nine states during the same period and stayed the same in 10.
In the Project's first statehouse survey, conducted in 1998, we found that a sharp decrease had occurred over a 10-year period. Only 513 reporters were covering the 50 state capitols as a full-time beat at that time. In subsequent years we documented modest improvements. The last time we checked, in 2000, we found 543 reporters.
But this year, the count has fallen to 510--or 33 fewer than two years ago. It is the lowest number we have seen, and probably the lowest in at least the last quarter century. It comes almost entirely as a consequence of newsroom budget cuts by companies seeking to bolster their shrinking profit margins during an economic downturn.
We did find a couple of bright spots. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised its total from three full-time reporters to five. Charles Gay, the state Capitol editor, says readers are interested in state government because "it affects everybody's life. We're recognizing that and putting resources into covering it." The previous low level of the Journal-Constitution's coverage had been a focus of the Project's first look at the subject four years ago.
A Knight Ridder paper, the State in Columbia, South Carolina, has doubled the roster at its Capitol bureau, going from two reporters to four. However, Knight Ridder papers in other states--Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina--have cut back. The Philadelphia Daily News, a Knight Ridder paper with a circulation of 154,000, no longer has a full-time state government reporter in Harrisburg.
The count at papers owned by the New York Times Co. has fallen by 22 percent, from 18 to 14. Although the company's flagship paper, the New York Times, has made no cuts, its papers in Massachusetts, Florida and North and South Carolina have.
Dow Jones showed the largest percentage decrease of any of the chains--54 percent, due almost entirely to the Wall Street Journal eliminating its regional editions.
The country's largest chain, Gannett, accounts for more than one-fourth of the decline. The company has reduced its manpower in state capitols by 12 percent.
These numbers refer only to reporters who cover state government news full-time. The picture worsens when one considers that some papers send extra reporters to the capitol during the legislative session. We counted 102 newspapers using these session-only reporters in our 2000 survey. This year, we found that the number had fallen to 82.
In researching this report, we spoke with more than 400 newspaper journalists--chiefly state government reporters, but also bureau chiefs and editors. These are the people most acutely aware of the problems, because they are the ones struggling to carry on in the face of the budget cuts, staff reductions and other forms of retrenchment. They bear ample witness to the damage that is being done.
"There are state offices, like the Department of Insurance, that haven't seen a reporter in years," one journalist told us.
An editor who had to discontinue his paper's Capitol coverage said: "We feel pretty naked when we're not there."
A reporter forced to handle a busy legislative session alone said: "It's just too big to get your arms around.... It's pretty daunting."
An editor: "We are depending on the state wire like we never have before."
A reporter: "We're trying to do the best we can."
An editor: "It's harder and harder."
For every reporter that is lost, news stories are lost--maybe not the top breaking news of the day, because the Associated Press covers that, but the kind of stories that matter most to a particular city, town or region.
West Virginia is a case in point. It is neither the worst nor the best of the states in capitol staffing; it is probably fairly representative. Its two largest papers continue to provide coverage that is at least reliable and at times inspired. But the third-largest paper has ceased to cover the Statehouse with any regularity at all, and most of the other dailies in the state are small, marginal players.
The governor, like politicians elsewhere, has been quick to fill the areas of reportorial vacuum with information churned out by his own publicity machine.
But something happened in West Virginia this year that almost certainly wouldn't have occurred if the tiny, independently owned paper in Morgantown had not sent a reporter to the Legislature. It is an illustrative tale--an example of the difference statehouse coverage makes to small communities dominated by powerful institutions. It is a lesson in democracy.
Cindy Frich of Morgantown was in her kitchen one morning, going through the paper as usual, when an article stopped her cold. It was a totally upbeat little story, boosterish you could say--certainly not designed to set off alarm bells.
It said the House of Delegates in Charleston was about to consider something called House Bill 4322. The bill would allow West Virginia University, whose campus is in Morgantown, to transfer property to a university research corporation, which could then pass the property on to private firms for development. This would help attract new research companies, a WVU official was quoted as saying. An area legislator added that it would create jobs and boost the tax rolls--"a really good bill," he said.
As Frich read the story, though, a darker thought entered her mind: Wal-Mart.
Frich had been active in local community issues, including a recent fight to keep a Wal-Mart from being built just outside of town. A university fundraising group called the WVU Foundation had given Wal-Mart an option to buy 45 acres of the foundation's undeveloped land on Highway 705. Wal-Mart wanted to build a SuperCenter store and a strip mall. Many people in Morgantown, as in other communities across America, dreaded the prospect of a Wal-Mart squeezing out established local businesses and draining vitality from their downtown area, but by the time they found out what was afoot, and before they could object, the land sale had been consummated.
Since the deal was contingent on state approval of a highway access ramp, though, the opponents had one last chance. As knowledge of the project spread and as the depth of community anger grew, the Department of Highways backed off. Wal-Mart was denied its highway access. The land sale was reversed. The project died.
That was a bitter fight, and it left Frich and others with a palpable distrust of the university, an institution that dominates much of life in Morgantown, a city of about 27,000.
So when Frich saw the newspaper story that morning, "It was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' " She picked up the phone and called reporter James Pindell of Morgantown's Dominion Post to find out more about HB4322. It was the first of what was to become an avalanche of calls, e-mails and letters--the biggest reaction Pindell had ever received on a story in his young career.
The 19,000-circulation Dominion Post doesn't keep a reporter at the Statehouse year-round, but for the past three years it has sent someone down for the legislative session. This year it was Pindell, even though he was a newcomer to the Mountain State, with practically no knowledge of the local political scene. The assignment fell to him suddenly after another reporter who had been tapped for the job got sick.
Pindell is 23. He graduated from Columbia University last spring, worked at the Indianapolis Star during the summer and then, after scratching around for permanent work in a very tight job market, landed in Morgantown.
He arrived in Charleston, the state capital, on January 9, just a few hours before Gov. Bob Wise was to open the legislative session with his state-of-the-state address. After moving into a small apartment near the Capitol, Pindell showed up for the speech, not knowing exactly where he should go or even whether he needed special permission or credentials to be there.
"I'm at the state-of-the-state address," Pindell recalls, "and I don't even know who the speaker of the House is--well, I do know the speaker of the House, but I don't know the Senate president, I don't know the leaders on both sides. I have my little book out while the speech is going on, and I'm trying to match faces so I can talk with them afterwards."
Pindell survived, and the next day's Dominion Post carried four stories from Charleston, three by him plus a sidebar by the AP. By the end of his first week, he had figured out where most of the committees met and how to follow the progress of legislation. He concentrated on Morgantown-area legislators, hanging out with them, shadowing them up and down the corridors and in and out of meetings, showing an eager interest, getting advance notice on the bills they planned to introduce and learning their daily routines so when he needed to interview someone in a hurry, he'd know where to find them.
Many of his stories dealt with topics of particular interest to readers in a university town--proposals to toughen the underage drinking laws, to raise the age for entering bars from 18 to 21 and to restrict the locations of strip clubs. He filed stories with Morgantown angles--stuff you couldn't get off the wire. When a House member from the Morgantown area checked into a Charleston hospital, complaining of chest pain, he got the story.
On the day Cindy Frich called him on his cell phone, Pindell had five weeks' experience at the Statehouse. He was no expert, but he did know his way around.
After she spoke with Pindell, Frich decided that the land transfer bill was not as harmless as it was being portrayed. She outlined her misgivings in an e-mail to all the area's legislators, emphasizing that the public needed advance notice and a chance to comment any time state property was sold, including university property.
Frich is worried about what she sees as the university's desire to sell off much of its extensive farmland for development. When she read about HB4322, she saw it as a scheme by which the university could transfer its land to some quasi-private entity--such as the WVU Foundation--which would then sell it to private corporations, without the public having any say.
Besides e-mailing the legislators, she sent a message to the West Virginia Environmental Council. People at the council's Charleston office quickly got hold of the bill, marked it up with questions and comments, and passed out copies all around the Capitol. The following Monday, just before the measure came up for final passage in the House, one of those copies came to the attention of Barbara Fleischauer, a delegate from Morgantown.
Fleischauer is an attorney and a WVU graduate. Her husband works at the university. They and their two children live on a farm, and she has a strong affection for the rustic life of the Morgantown area. She had read HB4322 before, she says, "and thought it was OK." But now, looking more closely, she saw problems. There seemed to be no provision for public notice or public comment. She asked the speaker to hold the bill for a day, thinking she'd offer an amendment.
Fleischauer was aware of the recent Wal-Mart controversy, "but what was really in the back of my mind was another transaction where a state park was involved." The law in West Virginia says public property must be sold at fair-market value, and she thought the state had not gotten enough for its parkland.
The lead of Pindell's story in the next day's Dominion Post read: "One legislator called Delegate Barbara Fleischauer 'irresponsible' for a move she made on the House floor Monday affecting WVU." After explaining Fleischauer's point about the public's right to know, the story quoted another delegate as saying the bill might now be "dead" because of Fleischauer's meddling. Another said, "She may have caused terrible harm to the university."
Fleischauer was surprised and disappointed. In their effort to stave off amendments and move the bill quickly, WVU's allies were attacking her personally, accusing her of trying to damage the most important institution in her district.
The dispute among Morgantown delegates caught the attention of West Virginia's largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette, which ran a story the next day. It quoted the university's president as saying he opposed giving public notice because he needed "maximum flexibility."
The story was growing legs. When Steve White, director of Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, a lobbying and PR arm of the building trades unions, read the Gazette story, he too had misgivings--not because of Wal-Mart or the parkland property, but because of a recent fight between his unions and WVU over another development. The university had turned a building project over to the WVU Foundation to avoid using union labor. White says the foundation "decided they were not under the laws of the land, so to speak, that they didn't have to have open records, open competitive bidding, didn't have to pay the prevailing wage"--all of which the university and other state entities must do. Labor took the matter to the state Supreme Court, which issued a ruling the unions claimed as a victory. But by then the case was moot, because the project already had been built.
As labor began to show an interest, Fleischauer and the bill's backers negotiated for four days. On February 23, the House defeated her public notice amendment, then passed the bill. That same day, the Dominion Post ran a letter to the editor. The writer thanked Fleischauer for raising questions about a bill and an issue "that would have wide-reaching impacts (good and bad) on our community."
It was the beginning of a spate of letters to the editor and op-ed pieces that would continue for a week and a half. The letter writers were clearly worried about the future of their small college town. "Will this lead to WVU selling off thousands of acres of farmland and forest land adjacent to numerous residential communities?" one man wrote. As for new jobs and tax revenues, he said, "The promise of an economic boon requires more than lining the pockets of lawyers, real estate brokers and developers."
Two days after the House passed the bill, a Dominion Post editorial argued that it violated the state constitution's ban on using public funds for private purposes--a new issue in the dispute.
In short, what had begun as a little-understood bill with powerful backing and no opposition was now the subject of passionate debate. The Environmental Council, in its online newsletter, called HB4322 "the perfect example of the typical slimy bill."
By the time the bill moved to the Senate, Pindell had written seven major stories on it. He was flooded with calls and e-mails. One day Frich showed up at the Capitol. She told Pindell she would not be there--would never have gotten involved--if he had not written that initial story. Frich lived in a Charleston hotel for two weeks and haunted the Senate every day, lobbying for amendments.
Fleischauer was getting more and more attention back home for the questions she had raised about the bill. "I got the sense," she recalls, "that people were very thankful for what I did. I got a lot of 'you go, girl'-type e-mails."
White, the labor representative, remembers that the news coverage, especially in Morgantown, "had a very significant impact on the psyche in the Capitol. You could feel the tone change when the bill went to the Senate."
The Senate Education Committee completely rewrote the bill before bringing it to the floor. Labor was happier with the version that finally passed, White says. Even Frich and Fleischauer, who worried mainly about secrecy, felt a little better about the final version. The university successfully resisted a requirement for public hearings, but it did agree to public notice prior to the transfer of any of its property.
By the time the session ended, Pindell had written 12 bylined stories about the bill--more than he wrote on any other issue.
Everybody involved agreed that the newspaper made a difference. Fleischauer feels sure that her constituents would never have been so "concerned and upset if they hadn't read the newspaper article."
Frich says: "I'm grateful that the reporter even chose to cover this, because without that I'm not sure that anybody would have paid any attention to this bill."
So what about other West Virginia communities, such as Parkersburg and Bluefield? The daily papers in those towns have circulations comparable to the Dominion Post's, but they don't send reporters to the Capitol. With more than 2,000 bills introduced during this year's legislative session, one can only wonder how many of those would have stirred the passions of people in some far-flung community, if only they had known.
A few small West Virginia papers did make an effort to cover this year's session. The Beckley Register-Herald (circulation 30,000), which is owned by the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. chain, sent a reporter. The managing editor of CNHI's Times West Virginian (circulation 12,000) in Fairmont showed up for the session's final two days. And Wheeling's Intelligencer and News-Register, part of the Ogden chain, sent a reporter for two or three days a week throughout the session. (This was no great commitment, considering that Ogden sells far more newspapers than anyone else in the state--almost 100,000 a day. The total circulation of the chain's six West Virginia dailies exceeds the combined circulation of both Charleston papers.)
The only West Virginia papers with consistent Capitol coverage are the Charleston dailies: the morning Gazette, which is locally owned, and the afternoon Daily Mail, owned by MediaNews Group, William Dean Singleton's Colorado-based chain. Both maintain two-person bureaus year-round, and although they are under a joint operating agreement that combines their advertising, business, production and distribution functions, their newsrooms operate independently and compete fiercely.
The Gazette had a storied history under its late publisher/owner, Ned Chilton, a firebrand who encouraged his journalists to battle corruption and damn the consequences. Chilton took on the coal companies and other powerful interests. He criticized his own advertisers, exposing consumer ripoffs of every sort, including abuses by car dealers. He questioned beliefs dear to the hearts of many West Virginians. He supported gun control, opposed the death penalty and challenged the attitudes of religious fundamentalists. Over the years he initiated a series of court actions aimed at expanding West Virginians' right to freedom of information. The National Law Journal once quoted him as saying, "I want to piss people off."
The star of Chilton's newsroom was Jim Haught, who won a host of reporting awards--National Headliner, Sigma Delta Chi, three National Press Club awards and more. John C. Behrens' 1977 book on investigative reporting, "The Typewriter Guerrillas," devotes a chapter to Haught's work. It appears in the book just before the chapter on Seymour Hersh.
Since Ned Chilton's death in 1987, the Gazette has remained in the Chilton family, and while it is less provocative than it used to be, the paper still values hard-hitting journalism and seldom misses a chance to skewer the state's ruling interests. Haught is now its editor.
The Daily Mail is a conservative answer to the liberal Gazette. It was locally owned until 1987, when the Thomson chain acquired it. MediaNews bought it from Thomson three years ago.
Both papers offer extensive, serious coverage of state government, and their sharp competition for stories and contrasting editorial voices make both papers more interesting than they otherwise would be. That makes the political issues more interesting as well.
We picked a day at random--March 5--and counted all the items in each paper that dealt with issues before the Legislature. The Gazette had seven stories, totaling about six-and-a-half columns of type excluding headlines, plus two editorials and two letters to the editor. The Daily Mail had 10 stories, totaling 11 columns, plus two editorials and three letters to the editor. Five of the six stories on the Mail's front page dealt with issues before the Legislature.
That day we also read Gannett's Huntington Herald-Dispatch--the state's next largest paper after the two Charleston dailies. We found one AP story on page 3C and a "news in brief" item on page 3A. The only other reference to state government we could find was a short opinion piece by a local citizen. This was during the session's final week, when some of the hottest issues were coming to a boil.
Tom Miller remembers when times were better at the Herald-Dispatch. He had a ringside seat for the decline of government coverage at this 35,000-circulation paper. As a reporter there during the 1970s and 1980s, Miller gained something of a national reputation. His 1974 series "Who Owns West Virginia?" about absentee land and mineral ownership, won a Gerald Loeb Award. Like his friend Jim Haught, Miller had a chapter devoted to him in "The Typewriter Guerrillas."
Patty Vandergrift, the Charleston Gazette's city editor, regarded Miller as a mentor when she was breaking in as a Statehouse reporter in the 1980s. "He absolutely was the master at knowing what to cover, what had a chance to pass, what was important, and really helping the rest of the press corps.... Tom would have this poster board, where he would write down 10 or 12 bill numbers and short descriptions of what the bills were. And everybody in the whole place knew that obviously those were the hot topics, the ones that we needed to be following, and so we all--or at least I did--kind of piggybacked off what Tom was doing. He's just a master at it, so good."
But Gannett scaled back on government news during the 1980s, and Miller felt the effects. "They became less and less interested in what was going on in the state as a whole," he says. "We had problems, we had clashes. They finally forced me out by telling me I had to take a camera and go and take the snapshots at a hospital and do man-on-the-street interviews. This was after I'd been there 30-something years. So I just said, 'OK, enough of this.' "
Miller was 57 when he left the Huntington paper. This year, at 63, he was still on duty at the Capitol, covering the 60-day legislative session for West Virginia's statewide public television network.
After Miller's departure, the Herald-Dispatch continued to provide Capitol coverage for a few years. In 1998, when the Project on the State of the American Newspaper first surveyed statehouse coverage, we found the paper had a full-time reporter in Charleston, plus an extra person who helped out during the session. In 2000, when we checked again, the Herald-Dispatch had abandoned year-round coverage but sent a reporter for the session. This year, it didn't even do that.
Asked why not, the paper's executive editor, Edward Dawson, replied, "We get a lot of coverage from the state AP on that. And even if we were there, we couldn't cover it all anyway. There are so many committee meetings and things like that."
If his paper had more resources, he says, putting a reporter in Charleston might be "something we'd look at."
The Herald-Dispatch is less than an hour's drive on Interstate 64 from the Capitol.
When the session ends in March, and the Beckley and Morgantown reporters go home, and the part-time session reporter from Wheeling stops showing up, the two Charleston dailies continue to cover state government full blast. The rest of the state, though, suffers something of a blackout. Most of the time it falls to a lone AP reporter to try to inform most West Virginians about their government.
The state's governor, Bob Wise, happily helps out. Once a week, the governor's press secretary, Amy Shuler Goodwin, troops upstairs for a message meeting with Wise and several top aides. Goodwin brings along a rough outline of issues that the governor might want to speak to. After the message is agreed on, they proceed to plan the travel, the media events, the press conferences, the speeches. It is not unusual, Goodwin says, for the governor to be on the road three or four days a week.
With Wise in his second year as governor, Goodwin is still experimenting with the most effective ways to put his message across. The trick is to make newsgathering as easy as possible for the media. Goodwin does not use the expression spoon-feed the media, but that is clearly what she does.
"We post our press releases on the Web site. We do a daily radio feed, so if you go to my Web site I'll have a radio feed up there for you...a sound bite fresh from the governor every day."
For television, she has satellite feeds. "We have a room where we have changed around the lights and the drapes and everything. I have a guy that I work with who comes down. He'll shoot some B-roll for me, depending on what the story is. And a talking head of the governor. We have access to West Virginia State College--they have a satellite uplink, and for 183 bucks I can get it out to every single station across the state."
Goodwin's office carefully measures the results. At the start of each day, her deputy rounds up "the morning clips"--reading every newspaper Web site in West Virginia and then composing an e-mail for the governor's senior staff. "When we arrive every morning," Goodwin says, "we have, on our e-mail, a list and a link to every story."
Another of Goodwin's aides keeps a more extensive record of news clips, filing them in big blue binders, organized by county. "We have 55 counties in West Virginia, so there are 55 binders. And then in between them there are [such topics as] airport, children, education. We clip them and we sort them," Goodwin says. "We get a lot of positive play in the papers."
The more passive the news media become, of course, the more narrow and one-sided their coverage. Goodwin says the AP at least broadens the stories she provides by soliciting quotes from the opposition, but some others, especially in the far-flung counties, don't always bother. "Are there times," she says, "when I open up a paper and say, 'There are our words reprinted?' Sure. But I wouldn't imagine that that's any different across the country. Do I mind that? No. If you want to take my release and go ahead and print it in your paper, that's fine with me."
This is all rather typical. Last August, at a National Governors Association conference in Providence, Rhode Island, a group of governors' press secretaries got together to share ideas (not for attribution) about media coverage.
"One of the things we do quite frequently is, we'll bypass the statehouse press corps," one said. "We will sign legislation all around the state. Get in the airplane, go up north with a handful of bills, go to the east side of the state, wherever.... We take reading bills to schools around the state. We sign the higher-education funding bills at college campuses. Juvenile corrections, things like that, in these different communities."
The regular statehouse reporters often don't bother with a routine bill-signing, this press secretary said, so by traveling outside the capital, "we get better play." Besides the play, of course, they also get to make their case to local reporters who might not be as knowledgeable or skeptical as those at the statehouse.
A press secretary for a governor in a Southern state said the capitol reporters don't have "a healthy perspective in terms of what is of interest to the average person out there. So we tend to try to get to the reporters that are outside [the capital city]. In fact, we just had a big conference about smart growth and we didn't even invite the capitol reporters."
One of the participants in this discussion later confided: "It's a sign of how much clout some of these statehouse press corps have lost. If they were still strong, they wouldn't stand for that kind of treatment."
You don't necessarily have to be governor to get your message into the hometown paper unfiltered. When the West Virginia Legislature was in session this year, one of the dailies in the Ogden chain, Elkins' Inter-Mountain, ran columns written by its area delegates. These mainly consisted of lists of the delegates' own accomplishments--"HB4075, that I helped sponsor, was voted out of the house some weeks ago.... Another bill that I helped sponsor, HB4557, was passed out of my committee this week.... Another bill that was passed out of my committee...."
The politicians and the press secretaries are only doing their jobs, of course. The trouble is, when fewer reporters are working at the statehouse, it is easier for politicians to dictate the content of the news.
On the other hand, if one small paper sends a reporter to the capitol, it can have a ripple effect on other local media. James Pindell noticed this during his stay in Charleston. Television reporters from his part of the state would read his coverage and sometimes follow his lead. "All they do really is take a big issue--coal trucks, teacher salaries--and every week they'll just walk around and find their local people, and they'll do what they can," Pindell says. "So as far as really finding out what's going on, I'm pretty much the guy."
Even as the number of statehouse reporters shrinks, their basic job may be getting harder. Especially since 9/11, efforts to withhold information from the public and the press have increased.
In New York, citing the dangers of terrorism, Governor George Pataki's administration has ordered state agencies to limit the information they release on the Internet and through the state's Freedom of Information Law. In Florida, Orlando Sentinel Editor Tim Franklin said recently, "a staggering 126 bills already have been introduced in the current legislative session to weaken--and in some cases completely gut--the state's Sunshine Law." And in California, says Kent Pollock of the California First Amendment Coalition, "The climate [for government secrecy] right now, after September 11, is just as ugly as it can be."
The capitol beat is also more difficult now than in the past because state government is larger--with more employees, bigger budgets--and more complicated. The issues are more complex. Politicians are finding more effective ways to shape the public discourse. Lobbyists are much more numerous and better bankrolled than in the past, and many are skilled at disguising the true motives behind their proposals. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington estimated that in 2000 lobbyists at the state level spent $600 million promoting the interests of tens of thousands of special interests.
Sometimes even the largest, most talented capitol press corps can find itself bamboozled.
In 1996, the California Legislature passed a bill that the San Jose Mercury News hailed as "the boldest piece of utility legislation in state history." This new law, which deregulated the state's $23 billion electric utility industry, was supposed to make electric power cheaper and more reliable. But, four years later, electric bills suddenly doubled in some parts of California, and there were rolling blackouts and serious economic dislocations. The Center for Public Integrity called it "the most costly public policy miscalculation ever by state lawmakers."
Last fall, at the annual conference of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, three Statehouse reporters who had covered the deregulation bill held a panel discussion, which they titled, provocatively, "Energy Crisis--Why California Missed the Story."
Probably no capitol press corps is better equipped than California's to tackle such an issue. Certainly no press corps is larger; even after the wave of recent downsizing, California has 40 full-time newspaper reporters at the Capitol. These reporters certainly knew in 1996 that the deregulation bill was important and that it was backed by powerful interests, among them Enron and Pacific Gas and Electric.
Dan Weintraub, the Orange County Register's Sacramento bureau chief at the time and now a Sacramento Bee columnist, said during the panel discussion that although the bill promised savings for consumers, one of its main purposes was to funnel money to the utilities. It did this in an indirect, somewhat covert way, by letting the utilities sell bonds, which ratepayers would have to pay off. A larger problem, though, according to Weintraub, was that the bill had no safeguards against the possibility of a power shortage, which, under deregulation, would send rates sky-high.
Weintraub's colleagues on the panel were two reporters who had worked hardest to understand this bill--Dan Morain of the Los Angeles Times and Rebecca Smith, then with the San Jose Mercury News, now with the Wall Street Journal. The bill was "maybe 100 pages long," Smith said, and "virtually unreadable." It was written, Morain noted, in the arcane lingo of the electric utilities, and "there is no jargon that is more dense than that of the utilities." Smith said she found only a handful of legislators in Sacramento who seemed to know what was in the bill.
Often, when an issue seems impenetrable, reporters can learn from lobbyists whose clients' interests might be threatened--as happened with the land transfer bill in West Virginia. But in the case of deregulation, no such competing interests came forward. Consumer lobbyists were not particularly critical of the measure. Business and industry groups actively backed it, because the power companies had convinced them that they would get cheaper rates. Morain said a few legislative staffers were skeptical, "but they didn't really understand it either."
The bill took form very quickly. The Legislature deliberated for only about three weeks before passing it, and during that time other important stories--a nursing home crisis, an earthquake bill--were also breaking in Sacramento.
"I've come to conclude," Weintraub said, "that bills that pass unanimously in both houses of the Legislature are the bills we ought to look at."
It is clear now that California's power fiasco was part of something larger, a nationwide push by Enron and others to weaken utility regulation in as many states as possible. Some experts now see the California energy crisis as Act One in the drama of Enron's decline and fall. "Enron is the sequela to California. It's all part of the one-year story line," U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who specializes in energy regulatory issues, recently told the New York Times.
But six years ago, who knew? What capitol reporter could have seen all that coming? One thinks of Deep Throat in the movie "All the President's Men" exclaiming to Bob Woodward: "You're missing the overall!"
As political power has shifted from Washington to the states in the last two decades, lobbying patterns have changed. Today an interest group formulates a national strategy and then seeks to implement it not in Washington alone, but piece by piece, state by state. Four years after deregulation passed in California, 24 other states had adopted some form of it. According to the New York Times, Enron not only passed out almost $2 million to hundreds of state politicians to promote this effort, it "lined up experts to testify, hired local lobbyists and joined with consumer groups and some local utilities to present a united front for deregulation."
While that was an extreme case, more modest examples turn up in nearly every session of every state legislature. When the National Rifle Association lobbies for gun rights, or the Hemlock Society promotes "Death with Dignity" laws, everyone knows that these national organizations are pushing coordinated, national agendas. But if a lawmaker in your state introduced a bill to ban predatory lending practices, you might not know that a national group called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was behind it. Similarly, if there were a bill to let motorists purchase and display special smiley-face license plates with the words "Choose Life" on them, you might not know that a Florida organization has been promoting that same bill in at least 35 states. And if you see a bill to legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp in your state, but you aren't aware of a Wisconsin-based group called the North American Industrial Hemp Council, well, you may be missing the overall.
One of the positive trends of our day is that reporters are better equipped to spot these national movements. For one thing, they are communicating much more with their colleagues around the country. This is largely due to a new and promising set of resources:
• Stateline.org publishes reports on state legislation, along with links to sources, searchable archives and other services designed to let capitol reporters know what their colleagues across the country are writing about.
• Campaign finance information is easier than ever to track across state lines. The Web site of the Campaign Finance Information Center, posted by Investigative Reporters and Editors, has clickable maps of each state.
• ACRE is a two-and-a-half-year-old organization with about 250 members, run by and for journalists who cover state government. Its mission is to unite reporters to share skills and experiences. ACRE's Web site includes a listserv where reporters can swap story ideas and sources, talk about trends and answer one another's questions. It also has a link to a search engine where journalists can see what's been posted by state and local governments everywhere. ACRE's national conference last October in Sacramento featured training sessions on investigative reporting, database reporting, writing skills and the uses and pitfalls of numbers and statistics.
• The Center for Public Integrity conducts detailed studies of campaign donors and the issues they promote. This year it published a searchable database and state-by-state analysis of 36,959 special interests that had hired lobbyists in the 50 state capitals.
These initiatives and others like them have taken shape in the last four or five years.
At a computer-assisted reporting conference held in Philadelphia in March by IRE, there was a greater emphasis on state government reporting than we'd ever seen before at such a meeting. There was a panel on "Digging for Stories in the Statehouse," another on "Campaign Finance: From State to Local" and another on "Federal FOIA and Cracking State Laws." We counted 32 people attending the "Stories in the Statehouse" panel and 53 at the presentation on state campaign finance.
But while reporters and many of their editors are working to broaden their perspectives and master new skills, this hardly makes up for the cuts in manpower that their bosses have imposed.
The 50 state governments surely constitute one of the largest repositories of uncovered stories. At last year's ACRE conference, Mark Katches, then with the Orange County Register's Sacramento bureau, pointed out the obvious when he said that state governments "are just a gold mine for investigative reporters....We could use a hundredfold increase in reporters in statehouses just to scrutinize all these offices and agencies."
It's true. But while newspapers have the skills and the tools to tackle these stories, they lack one important commodity: bodies.
At the conference in Philadelphia, during a discussion on the use of databases in statehouse reporting, a member of the audience asked how the latest wave of staff reductions affected the ability to do this kind of work. One of the panelists, Jon Craig of the Columbus Dispatch, agreed that downsizing was taking a toll. He was certainly in a position to know, because the Statehouse he covers in Ohio has suffered one of the heaviest hits of all. It has lost five full-time reporters. But not everyone is unhappy about this development.
"The politicians love it," Craig said. "They're happy that we're cutting back."
The Erie Times-News no longer has a reporter at the state Capitol. The independent Pennsylvania paper closed its bureau last August, and the guy who ran it went into PR.