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From AJR,   July/August 1998  issue

Continuation of Missing The Story at the Statehouse   

By Charles Layton & Mary Walton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.      Mary Walton (marywalton2000@yahoo.com) is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.     

How did it become common wisdom that government stories bore readers? The answer, at least in part, goes back two decades to an influential research program conducted by newspaper executives worried about the steady decline in readership across the country.

Sponsored by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau and the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Readership Project drew editors into the alien world of market research. They were clearly in over their heads. Their own papers, reporting on public opinion surveys, often failed to differentiate between legitimate surveys and straw polls, or between significant and insignificant research findings. Some papers presented man-in-the-street reaction stories as true reflections of public opinion.

For expert advice, the project had the help of Leo Bogart, a former head of research for Revlon Inc. who was general manager of the NAB. Bogart later told the story of the project in a 1991 book, "Preserving the Press."

Bogart was commissioned to do a 3,000-sample telephone survey of newspaper readers. But newspaper editors were also intrigued by focus groups. Both Michael O'Neill of the New York Daily News, who co-chaired a committee of the Readership Project, and ASNE President Eugene Patterson of the St. Petersburg Times recommended a focus-group researcher named Ruth Clark, who had worked for both their papers. Clark had done door-to-door interviews for Trix cereal before joining the Lou Harris organization in 1959, around the time Harris became John F. Kennedy's pollster. By the '70s she was working for Daniel Yankelovich Inc.

Bogart cautioned the editors that focus groups were highly subjective, easily manipulated by the person running them, and that their samples were far too small to be valid. Bogart couldn't get the editors to see it that way. "To a journalist," he wrote, "the main question was not whether what respondents said was typical or projectable to a larger population; it was whether or not the quotations were accurate. Had they actually said it?"

A focus group was not, after all, so different from the traditional man-in-the-street interviews. It was 10 or 12 people talking, usually in a room with a one-way mirror so the editors themselves could sit and watch. Editors were fascinated to hear these people go on about their newspapers. The editors could even join in at the end and ask questions. It was fun. In contrast, Bogart's more scientific surveys seemed sterile, abstract and incomprehensible.

Bogart was not opposed to focus groups per se. They could supplement hard data gathered by more scientific means, but they were not a substitute for that data. Ruth Clark, however, apparently saw Bogart as a competitor. "Ruth is critical of the massive 3,000-sample survey which Leo Bogart..is plunging into," Patterson wrote in a memo that Bogart quotes in his book. According to the memo, Clark thought Bogart's approach was "mechanistic and demographic" but that her focus group findings could "complement Bogart's undertaking and give meaning to the figures he'll produce." ASNE paid her for 12 focus groups, one in each of a dozen cities. The groups contained about 10 people each--about 120 people in all.

In October 1978, at a gathering of ASNE board members on Cape Cod, Bogart and Clark presented their findings. As expected, Bogart's survey produced a daunting array of statistics, all of which, however, pointed to a straightforward conclusion. People read newspapers primarily for hard news.

Clark could not have disagreed more. As later summarized by ASNE, her report said readers wanted "more attention paid to their personal needs, help in understanding and dealing with their own problems in an increasingly complex world, news about their neighborhood, not just the big city and Washington, and advice on what to buy, where to play, how to cope." They also wanted "more help in handling emotional problems, understanding others, feeling good and eating well, having fun, and in general fulfilling oneself" as well as "news about personally helpful subjects like health rather than just the usual heavy fare of politics and government." Besides all that, they wanted more "good news," more "human drama with a happy ending."

Although Clark did not say so, these were also things many advertisers wanted.

Where Bogart's presentation had been dry, Clark's was peppered with lively quotes from the focus groups. And her conclusions struck a responsive chord: Editors were not helpless in the face of declining readership; there was a lot they could do.

In what amounted to an endorsement, ASNE distributed Clark's report, titled "Changing Needs of Changing Readers," far and wide. An initial 5,000 copies were mailed to newspaper executives. "The report contained no forbidding statistics," Bogart observed. "It was short enough"--at 51 pages--"to be read by every editor and publisher in the country."

ASNE's foreword to the Clark report suggested that the focus group conclusions were compatible with Bogart's survey results. It called the Clark report "an effort to deepen our understanding of findings that have been emerging from major reader surveys of the Newspaper Readership Project." The truth was, of course, that it didn't "deepen" anyone's understanding of the other findings; it contradicted them.

As Bogart later wrote, "By proclaiming the message that the public wanted fun rather than facts about the world's grim realities, [the Clark report] legitimized the movement to turn newspapers into daily magazines with the pelletized, palatable characteristics of TV news."

In fairness to Clark, her report never advised editors to run softer, lifestyle content in place of basic news, but rather in addition to it. It also said that all the focus groups "recognized that editors have a responsibility to inform and educate the public and not merely to provide the public with what is popular or wanted." In fact, Clark's first fans--O'Neill of the Daily News and Patterson of the St. Pete Times--never budged from their commitment to hard news.

But in the years that followed, most papers moved in the direction Clark had advocated--and then some. In 1985, Bogart published a study of changes in newspaper content between 1979 (the year Clark's report was published) and 1983. The study was based on responses from the editors of 1,310 daily newspapers. Two-thirds said they had made "substantial changes" in their papers. Among the most common were new lifestyle sections and a higher ratio of features to hard news. Bogart noted that the changes were "in direct contradiction" to what readers had been telling his researchers they wanted.

By that time, even Ruth Clark had serious regrets. New York Times Magazine Editor Jack Rosenthal knew Clark--who died in 1997--and describes her as "startled and perhaps chagrined by how many papers took her advice to extremes."

Clark tried to undo the damage. In 1983, she declared that readers had developed an entirely new attitude since her 1979 study. "The big change," she said, "is that today the main reason for buying and reading newspapers is hard news...

"Readers want to know what the state is doing in highways, crime, education, taxation, attracting industry, and what cuts can be anticipated in their areas," she said. "People also want to know how their state is doing compared with others. The sense of regional interest and pride is growing rapidly."

Clark's new research was published the following year by ASNE. Titled "Relating to Readers in the '80s," it did not rely solely on focus groups, but included a telephone survey of 1,202 people.

"According to readers, it's back to basics in newspapers in 1984," the report began. "They are saying: Give us the news--hard news, real news, whether it's national, state, regional or local. Tell us the facts about health, science, technology, diet and nutrition, child-rearing--and we'll do the coping ourselves." It said that lifestyle features, human-interest stories, gossip and advice columns, and big murder stories "are perceived as add-on benefits."

The new report sank like a stone. Others since then have been similarly ignored, including a 1991 ASNE survey, "Keys to Our Survival," which asked 1,264 people to rate their interest in a long list of news topics. Not only did hard news triumph over features in this exercise, but state news did very well. It came in fifth--behind city news, neighborhood news, national news and regional news but ahead of 28 other categories that included crime news, health news, TV program information and a Clark-like category labeled "news that's helpful with everyday living."

But by then, it seemed, nothing could stop the flight from government coverage and hard news.

No newspaper reflected Ruth Clark's original vision more than USA Today. Launched by Gannett in 1982, the paper became a model and an inspiration for the industry. As Gannett grew and spawned imitators, the model was imposed on cities and towns across America. Editors and publishers answerable to corporate bosses outside the state often lost their commitment to statehouse coverage. This happened in a dramatic way after Gannett bought the Great Falls Tribune in Montana.

The Tribune had been known for its independence in a state where the other major papers were hardly trusted. Until purchased by Lee Enterprises in 1959, the Billings Gazette, Butte's Montana Standard, the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian had been owned by Anaconda Mining Co. and used to protect and promote its copper and timber interests. Anaconda was notorious for its stranglehold on the state--the "copper collar," it was called--and for using its papers to do favors for the powerful. In 1950, the state's governor, John Bonner, was arrested for public drunkenness in New Orleans and held in a drunk tank for six hours. "He cussed me some," the desk sergeant said, "but I didn't pay any attention to him. He said he was the governor of Montana." When stories moved on the AP and UPI wires the next day, the Great Falls Tribune ran them. The Anaconda papers spiked them. Two days later, the papers ran short accounts of Bonner's denial.

Reporter Charles Johnson personified the Tribune's strong tradition of state reporting. In 1972, as a graduate student, he had covered Montana's constitutional convention for the AP. When he was 29, the Tribune hired him for its state bureau, and he continued to write about the sweeping changes in Montana government. As head of a two-man bureau, he became known for his meaty analyses of complex issues and was in demand as a speaker at civic clubs throughout the state.

But the Tribune's new president and publisher, a veteran Gannett executive named Chris Jensen, was not impressed with the bureau's accomplishments. In April 1991, about a year after Gannett bought the paper, two editors drove the 90 miles down to Helena to inform Johnson's colleague, Steve Shirley, that he was being transferred back to Great Falls. Johnson was told that Shirley would not be replaced in the capital. In fact, the editors said, Johnson was lucky to be staying there himself: Jensen had wanted to shut down the whole bureau and just rely on AP. The editors said they'd had a hard time talking Jensen out of that.

In the months ahead, Jensen continued to make known his low opinion of government news. Johnson heard that tearsheets with big "G's" scrawled on them were being found on editors' desks. The publisher was going through the paper with a felt-tipped pen, marking a "G" on any story he considered too governmental.

Johnson's copy was being cut as never before. So was his budget. "We always got a new set of law books after every session," Johnson says. "They were vital to the work. And he cut that out." Johnson subscribed to newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, which he clipped and filed for background and story ideas. "I used to send the subscription notice up there [to Great Falls] and usually somebody would okay them. But Jensen had all these expenses go to him, even the little ones, you know, $100. And then I'd notice the papers weren't coming. He was just chucking them." Eventually, Johnson did get his law books back, but he ended up paying for the Wall Street Journal out of his own pocket.

Johnson and his editors tried to resist. "We tried to say, 'You do a story on electric rates, is that a government story or is that a consumer story?' I don't know how you draw the line. We don't sit down and say we're going to cover government stories. We're just covering issues."

One day Johnson got a call from the publisher. Jensen sounded irritated. He said he wanted to see Johnson in Great Falls the next day to discuss a letter from Danny Oberg, a member of the Montana Public Service Commission, complaining about the lack of coverage in Helena. Oberg wrote that he had been reading the Tribune since he was a kid and couldn't believe the changes he was seeing.

As Johnson recalls the meeting, "Jensen showed me the letter, said it was a bunch of nonsense, and wanted to know who Oberg was." Johnson told him.

"He said, 'Well, this is all just a bunch of junk. We don't need this.'

"I said, 'Well, I think a lot of people feel that way.' " The reporter restated his case for state government news. Jensen repeated that the paper could just as well use AP. They talked more, "but it was clear we weren't going to get anywhere... There was no convincing him."

The capital press corps in Montana was quite small. Besides Johnson, there was one full time AP reporter and a two-person bureau that served the Lee chain's Montana papers. While Johnson was struggling with Gannett, the Lee bureau was in even worse shape. It had always been a difficult bureau to work in, partly because it served four different masters. The editors in Butte wanted stories on mining and gambling. Missoula, home of the state university, wanted higher education news. Helena, the capital city paper, wanted all the government news it could get. And Billings was more of an agricultural city. "They all had different opinions, and they all were pulling in different directions," says a reporter who had worked for Lee.

Soon after Johnson's bureau was cut, both Lee reporters resigned and the chain couldn't fill the vacancies. At one point Lee was in such disarray that it closed the bureau entirely, leaving Johnson and the AP's Bob Anez as the only reporters in the statehouse.

By then the problem was so dire that the Bozeman Chronicle, a 14,000-circulation paper in southern Montana, ran a three-story, front page Sunday package about the dearth of political news statewide.

"In this election year, voters looking for solid news stories about Montana candidates and issues are likely to be shortchanged," reporter Joan Haines wrote. "Some critics charge the media is feeding the public a junk food diet of fancy color graphics and skimpy stories--short takes and sound bites--while downplaying coverage of state government that people need to make informed decisions."

In one of her two sidebars, Haines quoted from the debut issue of a sharp-tongued journal, the Treasure State Review: A Montana Periodical Devoted to Journalism and Justice, published by Nathaniel Blumberg. A retired professor and former journalism dean at the University of Montana, Blumberg described the situation as "horrendous" and "indefensible."

He blamed the problem on the two out-of-state chains that now controlled all of Montana's major papers. "The Gannett chain, famed for its innovative typographical devices, skim-the-surface reporting and slippery sense of journalistic ethics, has taken over the Great Falls Tribune, once a splendid locally owned daily, and the Lee chain has abandoned the excellent performance and high promise that peaked in the 1970s."

The Chronicle's story ran on May 24, 1992. Jensen had been transferred by then to run a larger Gannett paper, the El Paso Times, so Haines interviewed his successor as publisher, Barbara Henry, as well as Richard Wesnick, the editor of Lee's Billings Gazette. "Executives of the Tribune and the Gazette say they are not giving state government reporting short shrift, but rather giving readers what they want," she wrote. The story quoted Montana Speaker of the House Hal Harper as saying he had told Henry that the media were falling down on the job in Helena. "More and more," Harper said, "newspapers are at the mercy of spin doctors. It's easier to crank out a press release. Reporters who do not have time to dig won't do it."

The Tribune's Barbara Henry was, by all accounts, a more personable boss than her predecessor--Blumberg called her "the good cop"--but she was no more responsive to Charles Johnson's pleas than Jensen had been. And so, soon after the Chronicle's report, when Lee Enterprises asked Johnson to rebuild its capital bureau, he accepted.

Today Johnson runs a three-person bureau that is free from many of the old frustrations, thanks to an extraordinary arrangement in which he reports directly to the publisher of the Billings Gazette, the largest of the four Lee papers. He is on an equal footing with the top editors in Billings, Helena, Butte and Missoula. "We meet with the editors and some of the publishers every so often and say what we've got coming and get feedback on ideas on what to cover. And they give us quite a bit of freedom."

Life still isn't perfect. The Lee papers often cut Johnson's stories severely, or omit them, as they see fit. But Johnson and his reporters have been given an assistant who clips and files for them, and there's a $900-a-month travel budget. One of Johnson's reporters went to Texas to investigate a private prison where Montana sends the convicts that its own small system can't handle. The bureau has made environmental reporting a priority. Two years ago, one of Johnson's reporters spent two months preparing a series on Montana's water problems.

The Great Falls paper, meanwhile, continues to make do with a one-man bureau.

Today, Chris Jensen is publisher of the Times of Gainesville, Georgia. Reached there by telephone, he said he could not remember any controversy over government news. He could not recall cutting the statehouse bureau from two reporters to one. He could not remember Charles Johnson's name. Neither could he remember scrawling those big "G's" on government stories.

"When I got there the bureau was in full operation," he said. "I don't recall any of what you're talking about." He said Barbara Henry succeeded him--maybe she had done this. Asked a final time about the cutback in the bureau, he said maybe "somebody's got me confused with somebody else."

Back in Montana, the Tribune has yet to live down the controversy. Last year, at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Montana Constitutional Convention, the curmudgeonly press critic Blumberg delivered a speech titled "The Role of the Press: Then and Now." He made the most of his opportunity, charging that "the out-of-state corporations that control the primary sources of our news and editorial opinion no longer even claim to serve the public interest." Publishers with no training in journalism, he said, "regard their newsroom employees as little more than cogs in a money machine" and deny them the resources to do investigative stories on such things as the prison system, nursing home conditions, health care and the tax system.

Blumberg delivered the speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Afterwards, he received a standing ovation. The AP filed a story containing the above quotes. The Great Falls Tribune edited them out.

n Arkansas, as in Montana, Gannett purchased a paper with a distinguished history and set about tailoring it to the Gannett philosophy. But in this case there was a crucial difference. Gannett had strong competition in Arkansas. And events took a turn the company had never anticipated.

The Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock was the state's dominant newspaper when Gannett took over in 1986. Ponderous and old-fashioned in style but liberal in its politics, the Gazette reached every county and crossroads. People still remembered its courage during the civil rights era, when it stood firmly for integration despite being attacked by the governor and boycotted by advertisers. Its coverage of school desegregation in Little Rock won two Pulitzers.

Max Brantley, the paper's city editor, says he believed a newspaper's duty "was to have the best people you could have covering the city and the courthouse and the state, and have them write their fingers off every night. I loved nothing more than courthouse agate. And I think that people liked all that. I mean, your planning commissions and your courts and your governments are what determines how life is lived."

The new Gannett "overlords," as Brantley calls them, thought otherwise. Soon after taking over, they circulated a critique of the Gazette, written at Gannett headquarters in Virginia, which said, among other things, that the paper carried too much inconsequential news--stories on planning commission meetings and the like.

"What they were looking for," says Brantley, "were the boy-howdy stories, in features and fashion and food." Color, charts, beauty queens--these became the new order. "Porky the Warthog Found Dead at Zoo" probably would not have made page one in the old days. Now it did.

The new editor Gannett brought in was Walker Lundy, who struck Brantley as "one of those everybody-hates-government brand of editors. He just didn't care about government coverage. It just put him to sleep. It didn't make any difference how you wrote it. He liked movies. He'd go to three movies a week."

Brantley's feelings about the new regime were shared by John Reed, one of his three state capital reporters. Lundy didn't cut the size of the statehouse bureau, but he did reduce story lengths. Twenty-inch stories shrank to 10. Ten-inch stories were held to seven. And while traditional news stories were being downplayed, the stories of certain feature writers--mere kids, some of them, and from out of state--got more space than they needed, or so it seemed to Reed. "They would have a 23-year-old girl from California writing a fluffy piece about hillbillies," he says. "Well, people in Arkansas aren't interested in this."

Lundy didn't see it that way. He recalls that when he first arrived, much of the paper's government news "didn't seem to me to connect with our readers. And a number of us pushed to make all of our government coverage more reader-focused. I'm not sure many readers have a fascination with the processes of government. I think they're interested in how it affects them."

To the extent that Lundy and his people updated the Gazette and gave it more personality, both Brantley and Reed thought the paper was the better for it. "I didn't totally discount everything they said," says Brantley. "I thought some of it was good. I saw ways that I could accommodate what they wanted without selling my soul." And Reed, looking back on it now, praises some of the legislative packaging. Instead of publishing long "roundup" stories that combined the day's unrelated events, the paper broke out individual stories, jazzed up the graphics and made the whole package more lively and accessible.

Before long, though, loyal readers of the old Gazette were writing outraged letters asking why the paper was being trivialized. And they were discovering they could go elsewhere for news. The city's afternoon paper, the Arkansas Democrat, had started filling the void--emphasizing hard news, serious issues, government coverage. The Democrat greatly expanded its news hole, consistently printing more pages than the Gazette. As part of the strategy, it increased its statehouse bureau from one reporter to three, matching the Gazette. "The more fluff they put in the paper, the more we moved into harder content," Walter Hussman, the Democrat's owner, told a reporter. Readership and advertising surged.

By 1990, both papers were fighting as hard as they could--cutting ad and subscription rates to record low levels--and both were losing money. The Gazette thought it could win in a war of attrition. Although Hussman was a multimillionaire, his staying power was surely no match for a multi-billion-dollar company like Gannett. The question was only how long Hussman could hang on.

"It was a newspaper war the likes of which you will never see again," says Brantley, gleeful at the memory. On a given day as many as eight Gazette reporters would descend on the capitol, he says, and that didn't count the four political columnists, which included himself. Brantley was both editor and writer now. During the 1991 legislative session he and his people produced a daily eight-page tabloid section on state government. The Gazette was running every wire story that moved, every scrap of news it could lay its hands on. The news hole was so large that some days the editors were hard-pressed to fill it.

The Democrat was doing the same. The Wall Street Journal wrote that the people of Little Rock were "probably the best-served readership--per subscription dollar, anyway--in the nation."

"It was a wonderful and a terrible time," Brantley says. "It was the best year of my life.

"I'd say, 'I want to go to Des Moines and cover the health care conference' and they'd say, 'Go to Des Moines.'

"I'd say, 'I want to go cover the national convention' and they'd say, 'Go to the convention, take somebody with you, get a nice hotel, rent a car.' This was unheard of in Arkansas." It was also unusual for Gannett. The company's losses in Little Rock amounted to more than $25 million a year in 1990 and 1991, according to company statements.

And then the war ended.

In October 1991, after nearly six years in Little Rock, Gannett surrendered. It sold its facilities to the Democrat for $69 million, and the paper was closed. Reflecting on what happened, Walker Lundy, now editor of Knight Ridder's St. Paul Pioneer Press, says, "Our slogan when I got there was, 'Quality makes a difference.' Their slogan was, 'Arkansas' newspaper.' They won. The last year I was there, I remember we swept all 13 categories of the Associated Press journalism contest in Arkansas, and I'm not sure that counted for much with the readers."

Hussman renamed his paper the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Hundreds of Gazette employees lost their jobs. Today, John Reed works for the state Senate and Max Brantley is editor of the Arkansas Times, a Little Rock weekly. But in the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas readers continue to have a paper that emphasizes hard news. The wisdom of that approach, Brantley says, is a legacy of the newspaper war: "It has made for a city and state of newspaper readers."

n Little Rock, readers had a choice. In Atlanta, where a founding editor of USA Today has pushed legislative coverage back with the obits, the Journal and Constitution is the only game in town. This once-distinguished paper has lost the respect of the people it covers, from the governor on down.

Even some corporate lobbyists in Georgia yearn for the days when, as one puts it, "journalists would get fire in their bellies and a commitment to issues." Says Wayne Reece, who represents the Georgia Railroad Association and BellSouth Corp., "I don't perceive that to be the case anymore. They don't have the resources and time to do it."

State government stories are in short supply on page one of the Journal and Constitution, the largest of 16 daily papers owned by Cox. A front page layout with photos, briefs and "refers" has space for only three or four stories, and one is usually a quirky attention-getter--a feature about couples who renew their vows en masse, or a ban on keychains dangling from kids' backpacks. Only recently was a no-jump policy relaxed to allow the occasional story to continue inside. Journal and Constitution reporters don't necessarily consider a front page byline an achievement. "You almost don't want to mess with the front page," says one statehouse reporter. "It's more trouble than it's worth."

Inexperience is a problem in the state bureau; reporters come and go. "They don't have a long view of the leaders," Gov. Zell Miller complains. "They don't have context. There's no historical perspective whatsoever." Miller, who has spent nearly 40 years in state government, remembers the paper's fearless reporting in the '50s and '60s. "That was the high-water mark," he says. "Now we're at the low-water mark."

"We really covered state government in those days," says Jack Nelson, the chief Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who won a Pulitzer at the Constitution in 1960 for his coverage of a state mental hospital. When he sees the paper today, "it doesn't really feel very good. I spent 13 years of my life down there and I was always very proud of the papers."

Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times, came to Atlanta in 1956 as executive editor when civil rights crusader Ralph McGill was in charge, and he stayed for the next 12 years. Back then, Patterson says, the capital bureau had "much more prestige than even the Washington bureau because that's where the big stories were and where the best people were."

As recently as 1990, when James Salzer went to work at the statehouse for the Morris chain, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution had a forceful presence. "You couldn't walk in a door without bumping into someone from the Journal and Constitution," Salzer says. "They were three deep [in the House], two or three deep in the Senate, and they had people running around. They were just kicking butt."

Now the Journal and Constitution has three reporters year-round and four during the legislative session. Morris has two reporters filing copy for papers in Augusta, Athens, Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. To cover this year's 40-day session, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and the Macon Telegraph hired freelancers. The Marietta Daily Journal assigned one of two county reporters when events warranted. Other papers relied on AP's three-person bureau. This was the press corps charged with following 236 legislators who introduced 1,184 bills and 1,137 resolutions, with analyzing the proposed $12.5 billion state budget, and with covering news of the administration--all in an election year fraught with speculation that Republicans would take over both houses and the governor's office. Lobbyists outnumbered reporters 150 to one.

At the Journal and Constitution, "the thinking seems to be that people just aren't that interested," explains Stephen Harvey, a former capital reporter who's now the editor in charge of state government coverage. If the number of reporters is any measure of what editors think does interest people, television has the edge. Five Journal and Constitution staffers are assigned to write stories and columns about TV--four in features, one in sports.

Rick Dent, the governor's press secretary, says he has worked with more reporters on a daily basis than probably anyone else in Georgia. "The folks who cover us understand how important it is to cover government," he says. "We make major decisions on a daily basis. But there's a disconnect," he says, between reporters and their "editors and management."

During the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Dent says, pollsters measuring public awareness of the governor's record discovered a "black hole" in the Atlanta area. The only explanation that made sense to the campaign staff was that the Atlanta newspaper had devoted so little coverage to the governor's first term.

Kevin Sack, who once worked for the Journal and Constitution and now covers eight southern states for the New York Times, says national reporters like him "rely on newspapers to tell us what's going on. It's hard to pick up [the Journal and Constitution] and get a clear feel for what's significant. Everything in the paper is buried. They have completely abdicated the use of their front page to set agendas or to tell readers what's important... They lack a sense of the players--how the governor is doing on a day-to-day basis, how he's getting along with the legislature, what's on his mind. They don't bring you into the political intrigue of the place." Sack himself covered New York state government for the Times in Albany.

Sometimes the Constitution's editorial page takes the lead because Jay Bookman, the associate editorial page editor, has time to do what the paper's reporters don't--hang out with lobbyists and legislators. "I walk the hallways, make the circuit, till I see everybody or they see me," Bookman says. This occasionally places him in the awkward position of editorializing about bills that the paper has overlooked in its news coverage. "It means," he says, "only one side of the story is told."

Not everyone is critical of the weak coverage. Says Speaker Thomas B. Murphy, 74, who has been a member of the House since 1961 and its leader since 1974, "It doesn't bother me at all."

The possibility that reporters are missing stories is the one fear Journal and Constitution Metro Editor Mike King expressed in an interview. The Georgia legislature is "an old-fashioned structure of government," he says. "It has a powerful speaker who can use it to his advantage." Lobbyists themselves actually draw up bills, he says, and legislators don't have the resources for research.

This would seem to argue for more digging by the newspaper, but King says he has developed "a hardened attitude" about "how much time and how much resources to devote to something that has so little impact."

Year-round, King says, two full time reporters are plenty: "Somebody to pay attention to the governor and somebody who pays attention to everything else." That means, though, that statehouse reporters seldom have time to pursue promising leads. "If one of us goes off on a big project," says reporter Peter Mantius, "it leaves just one person to cover all of state government. It's not that easy."

King argues that if the bureau needs more manpower, "there are 70 others working in other parts of metro Atlanta who can write state stories whenever we need them." Sometimes these fill-in reporters would call Rick Dent in the governor's office for help. "They'll get assigned a welfare piece," Dent says. "I'll have to spoon-feed the information to them... But I'm an advocate. I'm not going to give you the whole side of the story... They say, 'Who else should I talk to?' Well, hell, I'm not going to tell them to talk to the people who are on the other side." They tell him they don't have much time for research. They'll say, "I have to get up to speed on this because they want it by 5 p.m."

Usually, Dent says, the reporters capture the fundamentals, but "they traditionally miss the 'why' of most stories. They tell what happened without any context." Dent knows better than anyone how often the paper misses newsworthy administrative snafus. "Most of my day," he says, "is not spent with media but on crisis management among agencies... Time and time again we fix things before they get out. We fix things before we're embarrassed by it. It wouldn't happen if there were more aggressive coverage."

He grew accustomed to hearing mournful complaints from Journal and Constitution reporters. "I have a couch in my office and sometimes I almost feel like a therapist," he says. "They're frustrated, almost embarrassed about it. They tell me, 'We know we should have covered that event, but it snowed in north Georgia and I had to cover it.' " (Dent has since left the governor's office to take a public relations job with an Atlanta firm.)

In some ways the 1997 legislative session marked a low in the Journal and Constitution's coverage. Both statehouse reporters that year--Kathey Pruitt and Peter Mantius--were relatively new to the beat, having replaced two others who were reassigned to the Cox chain's Washington bureau. One of two additional reporters sent to help had little experience. The session generated more news than there was space. Protracted battles raged over welfare, partial-birth abortion and a bill stiffening penalties on teenage driving violations. James Salzer says Journal and Constitution reporters would spend all day listening to heated debate, then joke, "I have a couple briefs to write."

The 1998 session produced less news, so more of it made the paper. And before the session began, the newspaper ran stories on major issues for eight days, devoting more space than in previous years. A Sunday chart gave the status of major legislation, and a new twice-weekly column, "Capitol Insider," allowed coauthors Pruitt and Charles Walston to report from behind-the-scenes. Stephen Harvey expects to have four reporters covering state government and politics through the November elections.

Editor Ron Martin has often had to defend his nine years of changes at the Journal and Constitution. Readers in search of anything substantial must thread their way through photos, charts, lists, refers, briefs, Q-and-As, reader write-in columns and daily traffic reports. Every day of the week is an alphabet of special sections. On Sundays the sections can run from A to R.

So one day in February, with CNN flickering soundlessly on his office TV, Martin is ready to defend his newspaper's coverage of state government. "If you measure it by how many angry institutions and public officials and companies there are out there, we've irritated a great many of them by examining what they're doing and asking questions about the way they're operating," he says. "You know, you can set up a straw man and say, why don't you have 91 reporters in the state capitol? Well, I wish we had 91 reporters, but we also have a lot of turf that we've got to cover in many, many ways." He says the paper has exposed fat in the lottery system and abuses in the justice system.

As the interview draws to a close, Martin declares that he finds the criticism of his paper "boring."

And where does that criticism come from?

"Journalists," Martin retorts. "Never readers, never real people."

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