When Kimberly Kindy joined the Orange County Register’s Sacramento bureau twelve years ago, she had an itch to do some investigative reporting. Within a year of moving to Sacramento from the Register’s main offices, Kindy formed a one-woman investigative team in the bureau and quickly earned a reputation as one of the capitol press corps’s toughest watchdogs. But when the print downturn came in the mid-2000s, and the Register, like the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others, began to downsize, she didn’t need her keen investigative senses to know what was coming: smaller bureau; fewer investigations.
Kindy moved to the San Jose Mercury News in 2007, but the story was the same there. She lasted a year. “There’s only so many times you want to sit by your phone and wait to see if you’re going to get the call that time around with the layouts,” says Kindy. “I sat by the phone twice with the Mercury News. And even though they kept assuring me I wasn’t going to get laid off, I didn’t ever want to sit by the phone again.” In 2008, Kindy headed to D.C. for a new job at The Washington Post.
“Right before I left the Register’s bureau there were six people,” she says from her Washington office. “Now there’s one who writes out of his house.”
Few have been hit harder by California’s newspaper woes than the reporters charged with covering state government. The Times’s bureau is down from twelve reporters in 1998 to nine today, including a blogger and columnist. The San Francisco Chronicle has halved its capitol staff. Smaller papers like The Stockton Record and The Bakersfield California have shut their bureaus. The Sacramento Bee remains reasonably robust, but it’s an exception. More common are stories like Kindy’s and the Register’s—bureaus shrinking and reporters fleeing for retirement, new beats, new papers, and new careers; more than twenty have taken jobs with the government they once covered.
Those who’ve stuck it out like to do head counts, and their back-envelope math reveals a sobering decade-long exodus. Bob Salladay, who took a buyout from the Times and now works in Sacramento for the foundation-funded California Watch, says there were about eighty full-time reporters and editors (including radio and TV) in the corps in 1999; by 2010, he counted just thirty-five. The Bee’s Dan Morain says that figure’s about right: he counted seventy-five full-time print reporters in 2002, and forty-five in 2008. Morain says by now it’s “probably down sixty five percent—way beyond decimation.”
“This is a state with a more than trillion dollar economy, more than 250,000 state employees, 10,000 schools, the biggest welfare system in the country, the biggest prison system in the country,” says Salladay. “There’s a lot to cover and there’s a lot of room for waste, fraud, abuse, corruption. With just thirty-five reporters covering state government it’s hard to keep up.”
For many California statehouse vets, the fuller Sacramento press corps of the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s was the stuff of a muckraker’s dreams—exactly the pen in which a reporter like Kindy wanted to play. Morain, who prior to his role at the Bee joined the Times’s capitol bureau in 1993 and “wrote the hell out of” the prison construction boom and the passage of the three-strikes initiative, says it was a “competitive town,” with reporters from papers big and small jockeying for scoops as they exchanged information. Papers developed deep investigative projects on the state budget, the movement of laws like the indoor smoking ban, and electoral candidates down through to state treasurer.
All were energized by a sense of Sacramento’s importance. “California’s is the biggest statehouse, which is a good reason to need a very strong press corps,” says Kindy. “But it’s also a place where many things are tested before they go national. Special interest groups and big industries try things out in California if they’re not getting traction in Congress. We are the place where the initiative drive came of age. Really great people wanted to work here; they understood that things were important. They weren’t trying to go to another great paper; they weren’t trying to go to the East Coast.”