Norm Lewis, editor of the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Washington, admits that his little paper (circulation 20,500) didn't used to pay much attention to the statehouse in Olympia. For years the Herald only had one intern from the University of Washington to cover the legislative session, and in 1998 it didn't even have that. The paper made do with its wire services.
Then Jeff Morris paid him a call. Morris, an ambitious young politician, represents part of the Skagit Valley area, north of Seattle, in the state legislature. He told Lewis that the amount of mail and calls his office received decreased significantly last year because of the dropoff in the Herald's already meager legislative coverage. That got the editor's attention.
Morris' experience was "probably a greater barometer than a survey," Lewis says. As a result, "We said, 'Let's go ahead and put our own person in there.' " For the '99 session, the Herald staffed the legislature with one of its senior reporters.
Turns out, that sort of thing was happening all over Washington state this spring. Five papers, in a state with only 24 dailies, jacked up their capital coverage from the previous year. Four additional full-time reporters joined the Olympia press corps.
In fact, it seems that was happening all around the country.
One year after its widely publicized survey of newspaper coverage of the statehouses, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper again examined all 50 states to determine the number of full-time reporters covering state government. This time around, the results were considerably more heartening.
In 24 states, reporting commitment in 1999 was up over '98--in some states, such as Washington, way up. Coverage levels were unchanged in 13 states, but even here was some good news, in that seven of those states had been trending down until this year. In 13 other states, however, reporting commitment is still slipping.
This survey differs from the original in that it offers a year-over-year snapshot. The goal of the 1998 survey was to document coverage trends throughout the '90s. And the results of that poll were as clear as they were discouraging: In 27 states, including such major ones as Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, the newspaper industry's reporting commitment was clearly down. Coverage had been flat in nine states, and up in 14. Beyond the discouraging numbers, many state reporters expressed concerns about how seriously their coverage was being taken back at the main office, about how little space and significance their stories received. Some even worried about the continued existence of their bureaus. Fortunately, evidence suggests things are looking up here, too.
In Georgia, for instance, lobbyist Neill Herring says that although the number of statehouse reporters hasn't exactly skyrocketed, the prominence and newshole devoted to their stories were much higher during this session. Herring, who works for a variety of environmental, labor and legal groups, cites a story from the Albany Herald that led to legislation intended to help small businesses. "And that's the best indication of good coverage for me, as a lobbyist."
Better yet is the fact that many of these papers seem to have refocused on the statehouse in response to reader demands. Tom McFeely, a statehouse reporter for the Stamford Advocate, one of five Connecticut papers that increased their representation in Hartford, says readers definitely were a catalyst in the Advocate's decision to add a year-round person there. "For the first time in years our readership was looking for coverage we weren't providing," says McFeely. No polling was needed, he says; phone calls and letters to the editor did the trick.
With a handful of exceptions, such as Washington and Connecticut, most of the state increases involved a single reporter here or there. Still, it's improvement.
Looking back through the '90s, one could point to the influence of newspaper chains for the slimming ranks of statehouse reporters. But the past year has shown that trend reversing as well. Of the top companies ranked by total daily circulation and number of daily papers, only one, Scripps Howard, showed an overall decrease in statehouse coverage. Collectively, the papers owned by Gannett, Newhouse, MediaNews and the New York Times Co., which witnessed declines in the '90s, were up this year.
In addition, five consolidated statehouse bureaus were formed since last summer, all increasing the total number of reporters in the process. Freedom Newspapers in North Carolina opened a two-person bureau in Raleigh to cover the statehouse for its six dailies in the state, where previously none of the papers had sent a reporter on its own. Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. opened a one-person bureau in Oklahoma City for its 23 Oklahoma dailies. And Media General created three consolidated bureaus--in California, Massachusetts and North Carolina--increasing the total number of their capital reporters in each state.
"Anytime you do this sort of thing that improves coverage, the readers recognize it, the wires see it, and competitors see it," says Tom Silvestri, director of news synergy at Media General. "It improves the coverage not only in your paper, but overall." Media General's bureaus share copy and information about governmental trends among the company's 21 dailies. "You improve the availability of information, but you also help editors see what's out there," Silvestri says.
Beyond the consolidated bureaus, 12 newspapers in '99 either created new statehouse bureaus or reopened those they had closed earlier in the decade. By contrast, only six bureaus were closed. Echoing the sentiment of many editors with newly established bureaus, Skagit Valley Herald Editor Norm Lewis says, "Although [Associated Press] does a wonderful job covering the capital, we wanted our own reporter familiar with the area to cover our particular local issues."
In compiling this listing of full-time reporters, the Project did not count interns, reporters who divide their time covering government and nongovernment matters, or beat reporters (say, education or environmental writers) who cover state issues only when their specialty is at hand. Columnists and editorial writers who devote most of their time to state issues are counted here. The charts also reflect instances in which papers add reporters specifically for legislative sessions, denoted as "Session Help?" The "Status" arrow indicates if the paper has increased reporting in the past year, decreased it or kept it the same, as of May 1999. (A few papers are shown as having no statehouse staff and no change; these are dailies that at some point did have capital bureaus, but which eliminated them prior to our first survey in 1998.)