Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sadness at the Statehouse

After you've read the Baltimore cops piece mentioned in my previous post, read Marc Fisher's lament about the state of Statehouse coverage. And throw in Howard Kurtz's look at the sagging newspaper industry overall. There's a fair amount to quibble with in both pieces (though Fisher's quoting my old AP colleague and friend Bob Lewis isn't one of them). For instance, I don't completely buy Fisher's thesis that bloggers and other alternatives can't competently cover state government. Andy Brack's Statehouse Report here in South Carolina shows that it can be done. (That's along with host of bloggers who opine on the state political scene and do break stories. South Carolina may be a tad unusual, however, as one of the few states where state-level politics is also the state sport.)

But the larger issue is, however, that even as the feds have been pushing power back to the states for the past two decades, newspapers have been cutting coverage. To say editors and execs don't get it is too simplistic. I'm not sure exactly why, but as a longtime Statehouse reporter or editor in four states (Indiana - where I generally covered it from afar, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Carolina), let me take a stab at it. First, jut consider this graf from Fisher's story and let it hang there for a while. We'll get back to it:

In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No's won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone's property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people's lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.

Here's what I've observed over the years:
  1. Most editors, either those I worked for directly or the ones I dealt with at AP, define the Statehouse beat as a political one. In fact, the Statehouse reporter often was also the chief political reporter. For efficiency's sake, it probably can't be avoided. But it tends to conflate things and cast every story as political.
  2. Which too often leads to the narrow view that most of the news comes from the Statehouse and probably has a political twinge. And political news, usually except in even-numbered years, tends to get buried under the theory that readers really aren't "focused" on such things. Again, the reporters on the ground know better, but we're talking about the editors back at home base.
  3. That, in turn, tends to lead to a view that it's the pols who are important. Again, anyone with state capital experience knows that's far from the truth. But the result is that too often reporters are sent with the mission to cover "the local delegation." Noble idea, but if your men and women are relative newcomers or in the minority, they're going to have about as much say in things as a slow talker at an auctioneers convention. But I've actually had editors tell me they wouldn't run stories because their local members weren't involved or weren't quoted.
  4. The corollary is that there is much less news when the pols aren't in town (in other words, in non-legislative months). Again, any veteran reporter of the Statehouse will tell you that's far from true. Some of the best stories come when you can get unhinged from the chambers and get into the agencies. But we reinforce this pattern by ramping up legislative staffing and then cutting it - a natural thing, but one that unintentionally reinforces the idea that only certain times of the year are rally important (and during those other times, Statehouse reporters often are called on to put on their "political reporter" hats and travel away from the capital).
  5. Part of the problem is that Statehouse reporters too often fall into or have to gingerly step around the "process" coverage trap. There are still editors who think most of it should be meeting/committee coverage. As Lewis notes, they are moving away from that, but that legacy is a heck of an albatross.
  6. Truth is, though, that with one vote, one bureaucratic decision, someone at the state level can more profoundly affect your readers' live than can anyone in Washington or even at your own City Hall.
    1. Most of what Washington does is "big picture" stuff that may have long-range consequences but most of that is going to be funneled back through the states anyhow.
    2. For most of what City Hall can do, the power must be granted by the state anyhow. For instance, the city might decide how much your property taxes go up next year, but whether they can go up at all is in most places a state function.
    3. The state licenses the doctor you see, the person who cuts your hair and fertilizes your lawn; it probably regulates where that trash that you put out yesterday gets dumped and makes sure - or not, when the system breaks down - your house isn't built atop a toxic waste dump. It makes sure the gas pump you are using is accurate, sets curriculum standards and chooses books for your children's education, decides whether you can go to that hospital near you for that heart operation, or have to go across town -- or even across the state. I could go on. For pages.

The point is that just as good reporters know the courts/cops beat is a goldmine for short (or long) narratives -- you know, those kinds of stories the Readership Institute and others have stressed for years -- so too is the state capital beat a mother lode of "news you can use" stories that can speak to people if told the right way, not just ground out.

Let's get back to that graf from Kurtz's story:
In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No's won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone's property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people's lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.

Let's see. Vanity plates? Mildly interesting for the relatively few thousand who have them.
Hanging a noose? Again, probably carries a bit more interest with some segments of your audience (and have you thought about the increased risk to your teenager, you know, the kind of thing teenagers tend to do as a prank). But overall, mild to medium.

But what about this debit card-for-paycheck issue? What will your readers/users say if all of a sudden their employer told them their upcoming checks would be a debt card? Why didn't you tell me? I'm thinking this might be a better story, well told, than the latest eight-incher (or, god help us, the longer versions I've seen in some places) from the local (fill in your own blank - sewer, zoning, etc.) board. Yes, those are important, too, but seldom do they have the impact on your entire city that one edict from the Statehouse does.

Sure, there's the AP, but it's not equipped to flood the place with eyeballs as would be the case if individual publications had their own person or shared someone.

Does this mean you have to rush someone to the Statehouse and pay all those expenses, etc.?st No. Find a blogger whose work you respect and who covers the Statehouse. Or, if an alternative service like Statehouse Report exists, support it. Neither will break the bank.

Just don't abandon readers by abandoning the Capitol.



At 3/4/09, 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


When journalism is DEFINED as being something that independents cannot do, by congress, your rights, and corporate/gov't accountability die.

Act to change this, or your descendants'll pay the price, maybe with their lives.

Cheers, and Never Give Up,


At 3/4/09, 6:06 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

This is one of the reasons I have mixed emotions about the shield law and have not endorsed it.

At the minimum, I think there needs to be additional language that anyone performing "journalistic functions" -- and that, I admit, is a very broad, rough term that has to be defined (broadly, one would hope) -- could at least have the opportunity to try to invoke the shield law, no matter who one's employer.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home