Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wither the statehouse bureau

The New York Times reports today on the woes of the dwindling Albany statehouse press corps, but its report could be extrapolated to almost any of the 50 states.

Watching editors increasingly write off state government coverage as irrelevant or a luxury continues to remind me how out of touch so many seem to be. If you want to talk hyperlocal journalism, I can't think of much more hyperlocal than that. Much more than Washington, the folks in Trenton or Boise, Tallahassee or Bismarck, Des Moines or Dover have far more power to reach into your wallet or pocketbook and affect your daily life. How much more hyperlocal do you want to get than that at a time when the feds are devolving large amounts of oversight and power to the states?

If you think the financial crisis or Iraq war or a bushel of other things blamed partly on the press' supposed lack of watchdogging things in D.C. cause you heartburn, wait until the boys and girls under the statehouse dome get the notion they can ride wild without the sheep dogs keeping watch. D.C. may give you heartburn, but the statehouse will give you a migraine like you've never felt before -- and it will be in so many tiny ways, like so many pinpricks, that you probably won't notice until it is too late.

Fortunately, Jeremy W. Peters of the Times shows us that graceful, vivid writing still is possible from the dusty statehouse corridors, even if it is a prelude to the dirge:

The statehouse correspondents association in Albany dates to 1900, when a group of reporters decided to host a farewell dinner for Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, who was leaving the state capital for Washington to become William McKinley’s vice president.

It is an organization known for clinging hard to vestiges of its past. Women were banned from being members during World War II, a policy that was not reversed until the late 1960s. Women were also not allowed to participate in the organization’s annual gridiron dinner until 1972. Now a third of the association’s members are women.

But through much of the 1980s, the organization still had the feel of a stodgy gentleman’s club. Nightly poker games with legislative staffers and lobbyists were a revered tradition, as was “the library,” a metal cart of liquor that was wheeled out every afternoon.

Today the liquor cart is gone. The poker table still sits on the second level of the association’s office space — a balcony known as “the shelf” that looks down on the main press room floor — but it is covered by a piece of particleboard stained with coffee mug rings.

Downstairs on the main level, the sets of wood and brass plaques that hang from a wall on the first floor name various recipients of the association’s reporting awards. But they read like a death notices column for the newspaper business.

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At 10/11/08, 3:09 PM, Blogger Sarah D said...

I know exactly what you mean. I'm a senior in college about to look for a job. I've covered state and national politics for the last three years and am worried about what will happen to coverage as I've seen the statehouse bureaus shrink around me.

At 10/11/08, 9:33 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I think if you (and we) define the job as working for a trad media company in a trad bureau, then, indeed, things may be grim.

The statehouse, however, may be one of the first places we see whether this vaunted new era of entrepreneurship in journalism really has legs.

The capital has enough news that can be specifically targeted that markets can be developed. Further, the potential aggregate of those smaller markets is big enough that it may be able to support several journalists. So this may be one of the tests to see whether the idea of a journalist, a dream and a server can reinvent how we do things.

Andy Brack, former journalist, PR person for Fritz Hollings and congressional candidate, is doing fairly well for himself with that.

Remember, the market goes far beyond newspapers. Businesses have a much greater interest in what goes on under the dome. They understand -- unlike too many editors -- that statehouse news is far from dead.

At 10/14/08, 4:55 PM, Blogger Phillip said...

I cut my journalistic teeth as a teenage radio reporter at the Capitol in Albany. There was always more news than anyone could cover. These days, I see little in my home-state papers about the legislature except when it has something to do with the state budget, which apparently no one understands because no one reads it anymore.
I was especially saddened to see that the "Daily Gazette," which was the Schenectady Gazette when I was growing up and when I worked there, dumped its statehouse coverage. People like Geoff Taylor and Ken Goldfarb worked their butts off to give the Gazette coverage that no one else had.


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