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From AJR,   June 2002  issue

Taking Issue   

Related reading:   Sad State

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

Much of the shrinkage in statehouse coverage is due to budget cuts by the two largest newspaper chains, Gannett and Knight Ridder. By our count, Gannett has increased the number of people devoted to state government in three states and decreased the number in 13. Knight Ridder is up in two states but down in five.

Gannett's director of public affairs, Tara Connell, maintains that our numbers are not a fair measure of the company's commitment to state news. She acknowledges, for instance, that the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson no longer has its own state Capitol reporter. However, she says, this does not diminish the amount of Statehouse news the paper might print, because the Star has access to stories filed by reporters for Gannett's other paper in the state, the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

Connell also notes that our count does not reflect the number of column inches or stories a newspaper runs, or the quality of those stories. "Gannett is and always has been committed to state government," she says. "We do it and we do it well...even when there are challenging economic times."

The company disputes some of our interpretations of who qualifies as a full-time state government reporter. For example, Connell thinks we should have counted columnists for Boise's Idaho Statesman and Illinois' Rockford Register Star, because they write about state government. However, since they write about other matters, such as city government and politics, more than they write about statehouse issues, we did not count them.

Spokeswomen for both Gannett and Knight Ridder say staffing decisions are made locally, not dictated by corporate executives. "The budgets and how those papers meet them are up to people at the local levels," says Knight Ridder's director of corporate communications, Lee Ann Schlatter.

Schlatter says each newspaper must look at the coverage it receives from its statehouse bureau, how much of that coverage it actually runs and whether there are "alternative sources for that kind of coverage."

"They can supplement their coverage by going on the phone," she says, or by sending in extra reporters as needed. "It's not a good assumption to think that you have to have a person there full-time to get the kind of coverage that you want to have."

In any case, she says, the budget cuts imposed on Knight Ridder papers in recent years will not be rescinded when the economy turns around. The company's chairman and CEO, P. Anthony Ridder, "has said from day one that we will be operating the company in the future with a reduced number of people. He's said that to financial analysts and to reporters. He's said it often."