AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2009

Statehouse Exodus   

AJR’s latest survey of the nation’s state capitols finds a dramatic decrease in the number of newspaper reporters covering state government full time. A handful of digital news outlets are springing up to fill the breach. When will these efforts be enough to compensate for the loss of the newspaper watchdogs?

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

When Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned in January to lead President Barack Obama's Department of Homeland Security, there was dramatic upheaval at the state Capitol.

A Democrat who stood in opposition to a Republican House and Senate, Napolitano was replaced by Republican Jan Brewer, triggering turnover in state government and a shift in priorities — right in the midst of an estimated $3 billion budget shortfall.

But as the story grew, the Capitol press corps that should have been flooding the zone was evaporating instead. Arizona newspapers sent just four full-time reporters to the Capitol. Three of them worked for Phoenix's Arizona Republic, which recently cut a fourth position. Tucson's Arizona Daily Star sent one reporter. As suburban Phoenix's East Valley Tribune slashed the size of its newsroom by half, it eliminated both of its state government reporter slots.

Enter the Arizona Guardian.

In January, after the Tribune laid off editor Patti Epler and reporters Paul Giblin, Mary K. Reinhart and Dennis Welch, they launched their own digital news outlet to cover state government, boosting the ranks of full-time statehouse reporters by four during the state's topsy-turvy, five-month legislative session.

The state's Capitol press corps "has gotten a bit of a shot in the arm with the Guardian in the mix," says Matt Bunk, managing editor of the Capitol Times, a weekly that covers state government for Arizona politicos. "More flashlights keep it brighter in the halls of the Legislature, if you follow the metaphor, so it's cool to have some competition down here, even if a great deal of it is now publishing solely on the Web."

The diminished newspaper coverage of the Arizona statehouse, along with the creative attempt to bridge the gap, reflects the condition of state capitol coverage across the country. This winter, AJR conducted its fifth census of newspaper reporters who cover state government, its first since 2003, and found a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols.

The tally found only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation's state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago. It discovered that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago. The number of full-time reporters remained the same in four states and increased modestly in two.

In New Jersey, seven of nine newspapers have cut back. In 2003, the statehouse had 35 full-time reporters. That number fell by more than half, to 15. Newark's Star-Ledger and Bergen County's Record had 19 statehouse watchdogs between them. Now that number is nine, and they are combining their bureaus.

In California, eight of 15 newspapers have cut back on Capitol coverage. The state, which has one of the nation's worst budget crises, had 40 full-time newspaper reporters at the statehouse in 2003. That number has fallen to 29.

Georgia, which had 14 full-time reporters six years ago, has only five. The number in Texas fell from 28 to 18.

The Associated Press has a robust presence at many capitols, although it, too, has cut back at some. "We view state house coverage as essential and are acutely aware of our increasing responsibility at state houses as others are forced by hard times to reduce their presence," AP Managing Editor Michael Oreskes wrote in an e-mail. "We have about 85 fulltime state house reporters and expand this significantly during legislative sessions. We have added more people this year than in past years for the reasons I described."

Some papers use independent services that have sprung up, such as Capitol Media Services in Arizona or the News Service Florida that veteran AP reporter David Royse created last year.

Most states also have niche publications geared toward political insiders, such as Arizona's Capitol Times and Illinois' Capitol Fax.

Broadcast has traditionally been a minor player in coverage of state government. Most state capitols usually have, at most, a handful of television and radio reporters.

"Many of the full-time folks we're losing — in all media — are the older, more experienced ones, maybe because they tend to be paid more. That's a real problem on our beat. It represents a drain in terms of institutional memory and mentorship of younger reporters," says Laura Leslie, Capitol bureau chief for North Carolina Public Radio and president of Capitolbeat, an association of capitol reporters and editors.

The gutting of America's capitol press corps comes just as a large portion of the federal stimulus package becomes the responsibility of state governments.

"The reporters covering the states have to be there to catch that football and figure out what to do with it," says Barbara Rosewicz, managing editor of Stateline.org, which monitors state policy and political trends. "This is one of these prime examples of how watchdog journalism and the reporters on the frontlines are important to taxpayers, to regular citizens."

The newspaper journalists who remain on the beat still care deeply about monitoring state government. They — and their papers — are becoming ever more creative, collaborative and efficient in their approaches. They're scrappy, doing the best they can with fewer resources. Many are harnessing the power of digital media to better report on the workings of the state capitols and communicate with their audiences.

A few pioneers are even taking matters into their own hands by launching their own digital news outlets to focus on state government. But it is an open question whether — and when — these efforts will be enough to offset the disappearance of so many of the newspaper watchdogs that once stood vigilant at the nation's statehouses.

When AJR conducted its first statehouse census 11 years ago, as part of its Project on the State of the American Newspaper, there were 513 full-time reporters covering the state capitols. At the time, that seemed like a paltry number.

"State governments have more power and more money than ever before. Their tentacles reach into every household and business," wrote Charles Layton and Mary Walton in AJR's July/August 1998 issue. "Everyone — political parties, academics, trade organizations, labor unions, corporations — has discovered this. Everyone, that is, except the press. With some notable exceptions, newspapers are risking their credibility by failing to provide news that readers have demonstrated time and again they care about."

Subsequent surveys, in 2000, 2002 and 2003, found the number fluctuating slightly, reaching 524 in 2003. In each case, AJR questioned why newspapers failed to adequately staff this mission.

But these are radically different times. Abandoned by many advertisers, battered by a recession and, in some cases, weighed down by debt, today's American newspaper is a greatly weakened institution. Under these circumstances, chastising newspapers for cutting statehouse reporters hardly seems fair — or effective.

During previous surveys, AJR frequently found reporters and editors defensive when their papers had cut back and eager to convey that their coverage was still robust. This winter, however, many expressed not defensiveness but a sense of resignation. Scores of them offered immediately: "We've cut back a lot," or "We closed the bureau."

Many people running newspapers say they still want to cover state government. But as the news industry contracts, they say they feel forced to abdicate that role due to economic pressures.

"It's definitely a loss," says John Beck, executive editor of Illinois' Champaign News-Gazette, which eliminated its sole statehouse reporter position in January 2008. "It was not an easy decision to make, but we had to make it for economic reasons."

That's a decision shared by many of his counterparts across the country. More than 140 newspapers have cut back on their coverage since 2003, and more than 50 have stopped providing staff coverage of state government altogether.

Although newspapers may have no choice at this point but to cut back, much is lost when they do. "If you're not there, it changes how legislators look at it," says Ed Vogel, who became the lone Capitol reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the paper eliminated the job of 20-year veteran Sean Whaley last year.

"The oversight, the watchdogs won't be there," he says. "It's a benefit to society that won't exist anymore."

The loss of those watchdogs affects not only their communities and the quality of their papers, but also the press corps that remains, says John Patterson, who covers state government for suburban Chicago's Daily Herald. He illustrates how that happened in Illinois, where five papers eliminated a total of seven positions. Before she lost her job, News-Gazette reporter Kate Clements' coverage of the University of Illinois pension system "led to other people doing stories about pensions, who was on the boards and how decisions were made," he notes. The Rockford Register Star's Aaron Chambers broke the story about how the executive branch wasn't following the proper steps in managing contracts. "It involved millions of dollars, and nobody was following the proper channel."

Chambers now works for a lobbying firm and Clements (who now uses her married name, Cohorst) is communications director of the American Heart Association's Springfield office. "Now there are fewer voices asking a question that I might prick up my ears to," Patterson says.

In California, where there are 11 fewer newspaper watchdogs at the Capitol than in 2003, "You're working more in a vacuum," says Ventura County Star Capitol reporter Timm Herdt. "The more people doing it, the more minds you have approaching a subject and coming up with ideas that then provoke you to generate other ideas. Now, that process is stilted a bit."

With a smaller press corps, there is less time for members to develop specific areas of expertise. Reporters carve out niches and are bellwethers to their colleagues and competitors.

The decline also diminishes the clout of the statehouse press. When reporting on health care reform in Connecticut, "I and a couple reporters had the story to ourselves," says Ted Mann, a statehouse reporter for the Day of New London. "The smaller the room gets, the easier it is for the government to go around the press and avoid answering questions they don't want to answer."

He believes fewer reporters means less scrutiny of politicians, which will result in more corruption. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who resigned after he was accused of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama vacated, is "Exhibit A," he says. "These guys aren't the most honest, and they can be tempted."

Tim Carpenter, who covers state government for Kansas' Topeka Capital-Journal, thinks that's already happening. He cites his 2007 story about then-Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison's secret affair with Linda Carter, who had been his director of administration when he was a district attorney. "He would be on the road with his chief aide. What's strange about that?" Carpenter says.

What was strange was that the campaign "gave them time to be together in hotel rooms," he says. "When Morrison went out on road, they could be in a motel."

The affair finally surfaced for political reasons. Carpenter got the story, and Morrison resigned. "But," Carpenter adds, "something this tawdry surely would have surfaced earlier if there were more reporters working devotedly to cover Kansas government."

In today's capitol pressrooms, triage and narrowed priorities are the orders of the day. In Nevada this winter, the Legislature considered whether senior citizens should get a tax rebate and be allowed to drive without passing a new road test. Although both issues affect the everyday lives of readers, the Review-Journal's Vogel wasn't sure he would have time to cover them.

Like many statehouse reporters, Vogel must be ruthless about his priorities. "With fewer reporters, we can only cover the main issue of the day," he says. "I'll have to focus on the budget. Because we've lost one person, there are a lot of important issues that people are interested in that can't get covered. There are only so many hours in the day."

Other papers emphasize coverage of their local delegations. "The reporting is going to be intensely local as opposed to statewide watchdog reporting," says Walter Jones. Following layoffs in November, Jones is the lone statehouse reporter for Morris Communications' four Georgia dailies, whose readership does not overlap. "There are four legislative delegations to watch. Trying to keep up with all of them is not going to leave a lot of time for statewide watchdog stuff."

A reporter in Georgia for a decade, Jones remembers when the bureau had enough reporters to investigate state agencies and elected officials. Now, "papers are looking for local stories, and almost all of that is going to revolve around the delegation," he says. "Maybe we'll look at what the state highway folks are doing in our local area. But there will not be a lot of time to look at their overall spending plan or how well the agencies are run. If it doesn't have a local angle, we're not going to be able to get it in the paper."

Even when the statehouse staff hasn't been cut, capitol reporters are more often called upon to cover editing shifts or stories off the beat than they were just a few years ago. "We had a number of other reporters who covered specific state agencies, but Gannett's recent wave of staff reductions has forced most of us to stray from our appointed rounds in order to cover gaps in coverage," says J.L. Miller, Delaware government reporter at Wilmington's News Journal.

Despite the economic pressures, some papers maintain the same number of full-time statehouse reporters that they had in 2003.

Although it eliminated several newsroom jobs, Manchester, Connecticut's Journal Inquirer did not consider cutting its two full-time state government reporter positions. "The reason we keep such a strong presence at the Capitol is because what happens there is so important," says State Editor Julie Sprengelmeyer.

"It is the basis for how much we're being taxed. It's the basis for whether you can use a cell phone when you drive. State government news affects everybody every day," she says. "Having someone there every day lets us go beyond telling people what happened to telling the reason why or the politics behind the decisions."

Despite cutbacks by its parent company, Newhouse, New Jersey's Gloucester County Times made a decision to not back away from statehouse coverage, says Editor John Barna. "We have no intention and no plans to cut," he says. "There's a lot of value there. The legislative Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader are each from one town over. So it's an automatic thing that we should send someone."

State government coverage is "the price we pay for having a free press," says Dean Miller, who until recently was executive editor of Idaho Falls' Post Register, which sends a reporter to cover the session each year. "The First Amendment was given to us specifically to watchdog government."

Some newspapers located in state capitals seek to make a franchise of statehouse reporting. In Indiana, the Indianapolis Star maintained its two positions. "State government is an important area, and we put a premium on providing good, sophisticated coverage of where taxpayers' dollars are being spent," says Allen Greenberg, who covers state government for the Star. "Lawmakers love to spend money, so keeping an eye on what lawmakers do is important to our readers."

The California capital's paper, the Sacramento Bee, maintains the nation's largest statehouse bureau. State government is "a large hometown business in addition to a large public policy arena," says Amy Chance, the Bee's political editor. "For us, this is a local news story." It devotes enough staffers — 12, including a photographer — to ensure expansive coverage, with reporters able to focus on beats such as the governor, the Legislature and specific areas of state policy.

While the Bee's commitment to Capitol coverage hasn't changed since the 2003 survey, the way it delivers its reporting has. "The biggest thing that has changed is that with the same number of people, we are now a full-service online operation," she says. "We are doing blogging and video and breaking news alerts and Web site updates on all the major stories."

The bureau launched its Capitol Alert blog in 2006 as a source of insider news about state government and politics. "We were looking for ways to capitalize on an area of expertise for the Web and attract new sources of revenue for the paper," Chance says. "It has been successful. It gets the second-most page views of any blog at the paper. We send news alerts twice a day to people who subscribe and then do breaking news as needed for things coming out of the Capitol."

The Las Vegas Sun's Web site provides round-the-clock updates on state government and produces multimedia features such as slide shows and video clips — in high definition.

A recent offering covered a student rally against Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons' proposed higher-education budget cuts.

Many statehouse reporters post to blogs, from Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Anjeanette Damon's Inside Nevada Politics to Connecticut Post reporter Ken Dixon's Connecticut Blog-o-Rama. A growing number of statehouse bureaus are taking advantage of digital means of distribution — e-mail alerts, text alerts, RSS feeds and social media — to get their reporting in front of their audiences.

"Online is becoming more and more of a factor," says Greensboro News & Record Capitol reporter Mark Binker, whom several reporters across the country mention as adept at using technology to interact with the audience. "When I came up here and started a blog in 2005, I was the only one blogging here, and now I can't think of one who doesn't blog.

"And that's where newspapers are putting more of the smaller stories. They are making it online if they're not making it into print," he says.

For most statehouse reporters, blogging is worth the effort. "There's some production time, but you can add a lot of value to what you do," he says. "Where we stray is when we obsess on small and silly things, or feed the beast because we created it and we now feel the obligation to fill it," says Binker, who is Capitolbeat's vice president.

He is an active Twitter user with about 250 followers. In a recent week he asked if any of his followers were smokers who would be willing to discuss pending legislation. Social media "gives you access to the community," he says.

"When Twitter took hold in news circles, we also created an automated feed with anything tagged 'political news,' " he says. "If you want to get tweeted every time we put up a political news story, God bless you, there it is."

When AJR visited Tallahassee on the opening day of the Florida Legislature in 1998, newspapers had deployed 30 full-time reporters to cover the mayhem. Eight papers also brought in extra staff for the entire session. With the ample roster of reporters, "You can't know something a day or so and not put it in the paper without somebody else getting it," then-St. Petersburg Times Bureau Chief Lucy Morgan told AJR.

That intense competition is now being replaced by collaboration and content sharing (see "Share and Share Alike," February/March). This year, Florida newspapers sent just 16 full-time reporters to Tallahassee, and only two planned to add extra full-time help for the duration of the session.

But the most striking change from a decade ago came in December when the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times combined their bureaus. Five reporters now cover state government year-round for both papers, plus each adds another reporter when the Legislature is in session. That's a net loss in reporting firepower since AJR's last survey, but a gain in numbers for each paper.

Newspapers that were fierce competitors at the capitols just a few years ago are today sharing stories or combining their bureaus in a struggle to survive. This winter's survey found five new combined bureaus in four states.

In some cases, they merge because newspaper companies are consolidating staff. When McClatchy purchased the Charlotte Observer in 2006, its bureau was combined with that of the company's News & Observer in Raleigh.

In others, newspapers join former rivals because they are spread thin. "Too many precious resources were being spent on the same stories," says St. Petersburg Times Capitol Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet. "We're asking, 'How can we reduce the duplication and get more vibrant journalism?' There is a massive amount of duplication of journalistic effort. A large number of reporters go to the same press conference and regurgitate the same information."

As the two papers considered the idea of combining the bureaus, the loss of competition "was definitely a concern. We had a discussion, and asked, 'If you lose the motivation to kick the Herald in the teeth, won't there be less aggressive reporting?' The answer so far is an unqualified 'no.'

"A journalist has an inherently Type A personality," he says. "Reporters, even in an Internet-driven news era, judge success based on the number of times their byline appears. People still make a mental count of A1 bylines. If there are only a few stories, you want one of those to be yours. That competitive fire is not diminished."

Sprinkled across the country, a small but growing number of entrepreneurial journalists are stepping in to replace the lost coverage — by running their own sites. In Connecticut, CTNewsjunkie aims "to fill the gap in state news which continues to grow," says Editor Christine Stuart, who bought the site from Founding Editor Dan Levine in 2006. Stuart acts as editor and reporter, working full time out of the Capitol pressroom. She also serves as the state government reporter for the New Haven Independent, another online news site.

In Austin, Texas Watchdog, launched last summer, scrutinizes the actions of government agencies, bureaucracies and politicians. It relies on a combination of startup funds and revenue it generates by training citizen journalists and bloggers in journalism skills such as crafting public records requests, honing interview techniques and preparing multimedia presentations (see "A New Watchdog for Texas," p. 25).

In Louisiana, online-only outlet BayouBuzz "is absolutely primed to fill the gaps of all media — especially the daily newspaper," Publisher Steve Sabludowsky wrote in an e-mail. Sabludowsky, a writer and lawyer, frequents the Capitol and plans to increase the site's presence soon. "Newspapers will continue the decline and we (and other online publications) will fill it."

Other sites that produce some original reporting on state government include WisPolitics and the Center for Independent Media's sites in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.

In New Jersey, two sites are getting started. Both are projects of bought-out Star-Ledger reporters. The Community Foundation of New Jersey has promised former Star-Ledger reporters Dunstan McNichol and John Mooney $10,000 to start up a state government reporting Web site. (They are still working on a name for it.) "New Jersey is seen as a home rule state where municipalities control everything, but it's not true," says foundation board member Ingrid Reed. "So much happens at the state level that affects communities — education, transportation, environmental issues. And you don't hear enough about it."

Another site, newjerseynewsroom.com, hopes to launch soon to "cover the issues important to New Jerseyans." It plans to send one to three reporters to the Capitol, says Pim Van Hemmen, one of about 40 former Star-Ledger staffers involved in the startup.

The business model for many sites remains elusive, however. CTNewsjunkie's Stuart clears enough to support the site, and has already generated enough this year to pay for a redesign. Still, "I have yet to pay myself a salary, but I'm confident I will find an economic model that suits the business in the near future," she says. "I'm thinking about the co-op business model, as a compromise between the nonprofit and for-profit model.

"In the meantime," she says, "I work a part-time job, which pays for my living expenses."

The four editorial founders of the Arizona Guardian didn't always consider themselves digital pioneers. Or digital anything, for that matter.

"We were terrible!" Patti Epler exclaims. "We were the typical middle-aged journalists with no idea how to do any kind of multimedia thing."

What they did know was good reporting. Collectively, they had 80 years of journalism experience that had garnered dozens of awards.

When they found themselves about to be unemployed, they were determined to find an outlet for their passion for reporting. A digital operation, with its low barrier to entry, offered the chance to start up immediately. They got seed money from Bob Grossfeld, president of The Media Guys, a communications strategy firm. Grossfeld is a fifth, equal partner in the Guardian, who runs its business side but stays out of editorial decisions.

As they launched the site, the journalists gave themselves a crash course in multimedia skills. "And you know what? It's not that hard, as it turns out," Epler says. "Our pictures are obviously not of the same quality as a professional photographer's. But now, we do everything. We take our own photos, shoot our own video, add our own links, create our own documents and graphics, and figure out how to link to that."

They explored various business models, including the possibility of a nonprofit operation. Ultimately, they decided on a subscription model. (The site also accepts advertising.) "It's potentially more lucrative," Epler says. "It's so hard to make money as a news organization, but we didn't want to be a nonprofit, because it's hard to know where the money is going to come from long-term."

Requiring subscriptions is "incredibly risky and demands that the site's material be indispensable," wrote Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, on his blog a few weeks after the Guardian launched. "There is no denying the readability and general interest of the material on the site. That is a very different proposition from offering a value-added 'must-read' element that makes the site worth a big monthly fee."

The outlet's monthly rates vary by category of subscriber and amount of content. They range from $150 for lobbyists and political junkies, who get access to all regular content, premium material, daily e-mail messages and text message updates, to $30 for individual subscribers who get access to stories on the Web site, which is updated several times daily.

The site aims to entice its 1,000 registered users to subscribe.

In a few months, "it would be good to have 200 or 300 of the $150-a-month subscribers," Epler says. "Thirty-thousand dollars a month [which would equate to $360,000 in annual revenue] would be fine with us." Although the site is already earning a gross profit, its founders are not yet paying themselves salaries.

Starting off, its target audience is "people who are plugged into or interested in political news," she says. "One is legislators themselves. It's kind of why we do the story of the day. We are a messenger for them, saying, 'Here's what happened at the hearing or behind the scenes.' "

While seeking to capitalize on a paying niche market, the Arizona Guardian also wants to appeal to a broader audience. "We absolutely see this as a replacement for the coverage being lost," Epler says. "If we're just writing for people who are plugged in and in the know, we are doing a disservice to people who need to be informed as citizens."

The partners are also considering cheaper subscriptions in order to make their reporting accessible to people used to paying newspaper prices. "There's talk that maybe we should knock down the price for the individual subscription. The Arizona Republic is 130 bucks a year. We could charge $9.95 a month and be on par with that."

With their state struggling with one of the nation's worst budget deficits, Arizonans are aware of how much is at stake and eager to know what happens next, Epler says. "We got quite a lot of response from people throughout the state because so many papers have cut back on the Legislature. We hear from people in Flagstaff and even down in Tucson and out east in some of the towns that don't have a lot of coverage anymore."

With a continuous publishing cycle, a news staff of four and big ambitions, the Arizona Guardian's workday never ends. Epler, Reinhart, Giblin and Welch report and edit. "We generally get there at 9 or 9:30 [in the morning] and then work until 6:30 at night. We see our families for a couple of hours, then get our laptops out and start work again," Epler says. "There are many nights that someone will text me at 11:30 at night and say, 'I just filed such and such,' and we'll edit the stuff and post it because our goal is to have four or five fresh items by 6 a.m., so we can start the conversation at the Capitol, so they can see what we're talking about."

"At the paper there's a photography staff, videographers, multimedia and Web people," she says. Now, "there is nobody else. It's not like a daily paper where you can dump something on someone else. In order to make it really good, you have to do it yourself."

"It can be tedious, especially if you know you're competitive on a story, and you just want to get it up there first, and you have to make it post properly," she says. "The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and it's less time-consuming and less frustrating, but I still wish we still had other people so I could just concentrate on the story."

Before launching, Epler and her colleagues planned to eschew the story of the day in favor of coverage that would give context to the big issues at the Capitol. But reader demand quickly expanded the site's mission. "People who are reading our site generally expect us to have what everyone else has and more," Epler says. "We thought we could ignore the weekly press briefing by Democrats, but people have asked, 'Why don't you have this?' So now we try to keep up with daily stuff, too."

"We don't have to follow the media pack if we don't want to," she says. At the paper, "Once somebody else did a story, then it was, 'Oh, well, we better do it now or it will look like we're holding back.' Now we can use our own judgment."

Matt Bunk, who worked with the Guardian staffers at the East Valley Tribune as assistant metro editor in charge of the political team until he left for the Capitol Times in December 2007, has high regard for their work. He says the Times, which publishes an electronic daily tip sheet, a legislative report and a news site, welcomes the competition.

"The competition makes us better, and it will make them better," Bunk says. "It's a good thing for the market and for the readers and for everybody who cares about Arizona politics."

In this time of chaotic transformation, no one knows when or if enough outlets like the Guardian will emerge to fill the gaping hole in state capitol coverage left by newspapers. Many were excited about the 2007 launch and subsequent expansion of the Politicker network, which ultimately posted 30 reporters to cover politics in 17 states.

Politicker rode the wave of three trends, says James Pindell, who was its national managing editor. "One: People are going online to get news. Production costs and distribution costs are low," he says.

"Two: Niche and specialization. The Boston Globe has pulled back on foreign coverage because people didn't go to the Globe for foreign coverage," he says. "It needs to be the paper of Boston and of Massachusetts.

"Three — and Politicker never would have started without this — there's opportunity because of the vacuum left by newspapers," he says. Pindell knows better than many how powerful it can be to fill this vacuum: At 23, he was a West Virginia legislative session reporter for Morgantown's Dominion Post. He reported extensively on legislation allowing West Virginia University to transfer land to private developers (see "Sad State," June 2002). The bill would probably not have come to light if the 19,000-circulation Post had not sent a reporter to cover the session. This year, it did not.

"If there had been strong statehouse press corps [across the country], there would be less opportunity for Politicker to come in and make a go of it," he says.

Ultimately, Politicker, which Pindell says was not yet making a profit from advertising, disbanded its network and closed all but two state sites in January. (Politicker.com still exists as an aggregator of political news feeds.) "We weren't going to make money for another two years. Looking back, on the content we did better than others, but I don't know whether the business model would have worked out or not."

Pindell isn't seeking another staff job. Instead, he is developing a plan to create his own digital news outlet, which will focus on New Hampshire politics. Despite the fate of Politicker, he feels optimistic about his prospects. "If you're working at a newspaper, you could be out the door in eight months," he says. Although the business models for digital news are still evolving, "somebody will figure out the model, and the rewards are going to be much higher than going to another newspaper and possibly being a sitting duck."

"I fundamentally believe that our age is the age of entrepreneurship," Pindell says, "not the age of institutions."

Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor. She conducted AJR's statehouse counts in 2002 and 2003.