Not Watching Sacramento

The shrinking statehouse press corps

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.”

Kindy, whose last two years at the statehouse were “miserable,” says that with fewer numbers it’s impossible for outlets to do the same kind of investigative work she did when she first arrived in Sacramento. “There’s five important stories happening every day in the California statehouse,” says Kindy. “When you’ve got a press conference every ten minutes on something that’s really important and you’ve got two people, you don’t really get to go in-depth. You don’t have time to read documents, you don’t have time to fight for databases to see what’s really happening or fight for records. You’re reporting what’s in front of you. And what’s in front of you is not the whole truth.”

What goes uncovered is hard to tangibly measure. Morain says one area of coverage missing this election cycle, in which the state’s media is obsessing over “eMeg” and the Senate race between Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina, is coverage of smaller contests like that for the office of state attorney general, the winner of which is often a lock to eventually run for governor. “Then there’s the state controller, the state treasurer, and I’ll just tell you, nobody’s covering it.”

“There’s nowhere near the scrutiny that California government deserves,” agrees Steve Maviglio, a media strategist who was once a big part of that government—he served as former governor Gray Davis’s press secretary from 2000 to 2003. “The budget story has been boiled down to: Democrats want taxes, Republicans don’t. Very few people go behind the structural issues involved, the many special interests that are involved, the lobbying that goes on. We’re just getting the veneer of a very complex situation.”

Perhaps the biggest losers in all this are newsreaders outside L.A., San Francisco, and Sacramento. In those three cities, the major papers still have a presence in the capitol and do some (though less) solid, deeper reporting. Other cities have seen papers close their Sacramento bureaus and publish wire content instead; it’s neither localized nor focused on members of the legislature representing those areas.

Morain provided some stark numbers in a recent e-mail: “Eight counties straddle Interstate 5 and Highway 99 between Sacramento and Los Angeles. An estimated 3.95 million people live in those counties. There is one print reporter for all the papers in those counties assigned to the Capitol. That person works for the Fresno Bee. There are no statehouse reporters for any paper north of Sacramento.” And it’s not just on paper that people are missing out—there is only one TV reporter dedicated to covering the capitol full-time for markets outside of Sacramento.

A.G. Block, former managing editor of the now-shuttered monthly California Journal and current director of the UC Center Sacramento’s Public Affairs Journalism Program, says that news consumers in those counties are being short-changed. He took Bakersfield as an example, where The Bakersfield Californian closed its one-man Sacramento bureau in 2007 after thirty-seven years covering the capitol. “The political dynamic of Bakersfield is very interesting,” says Block. “Democrats hate Democrats, Republicans hate Republicans; there’s a lot of internecine warfare and some of that plays out in Sacramento. The AP will provide the blanket news: Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill on Fair Political Practices. But they’re not going to tell you what happened with Nicole Parra, who is part of one of those factions in the Democratic side in the legislature. Should readers and voters in Bakersfield be able to keep track of those sorts of things? Yeah, they should.”

Dan Walters might be the longest-tenured of the Sacramento vets. He joined the Sacramento Union’s capitol bureau in 1975, during the first governorship of current candidate Jerry Brown, and has been writing a column for the Sacramento Bee since 1984. He keeps a briefcase full of yellowing news clippings on Brown from the ’70s and ’80s in the office; it has become the go-to archive on the candidate for reporters writing on this year’s governor’s race.

Like his colleague Dan Morain, Walters remembers the competitive press corps of yesteryear, where seasoned pros knew the capitol inside out and, as Jerry Brown recently confessed in a debate with Whitman, you could clink glasses with the governor after work at David’s Brass Rail, and somewhere else after that. But he has a different take on Sacramento’s shrinking ship. “Whether it’s in politics or in the media, people mistake camaraderie for quality,” says Walters. “I think the press corps now, reduced though it is, is better in many respects. It’s more confrontational. It doesn’t take stuff at face value. It uses the electronic tools that have become available to delve into stuff in more depth and not simply read a bill and take somebody’s word for what’s in it.”

Walters says he is proud of the Bee’s often lavish online coverage, including its package for last week’s gubernatorial debate which featured live–streaming and an online chat with the columnist himself. As for the loss of institutional knowledge that has occurred as more reporters have leapt or been pushed, Walters says term limits introduced in 1990 mean “institutional memory loss isn’t just in the press corps, it’s in the capitol itself. Every two years, a third of the legislature turns over. And the staff turns over with it. Without that kind of historical knowledge in both the capitol and the press corps, there is a here and now tendency that doesn’t put things in context. But I’m not so sure the press corps ever did very much of that, to tell you the truth.”

Both Morain and Walters note, too, that online publications and projects have emerged to fill gaps left by the statehouse departures. Salladay’s California Watch launched in January this year and maintains a four-person Sacramento bureau. The team is producing solid investigative reporting and Salladay says papers are increasingly open to featuring their work (though, so far, Watch doesn’t seem to have the resources to do the kind of projects the print bureaus produced in their heyday). Bay Citizen, another nonprofit which publishes content on The New York Times’s Bay Area Report, produces good pieces as well—Dan Morain credits the site with one of the best early stories on Meg Whitman’s campaign spending—but its focus is generally not the capitol.

CalBuzz, a political site run by former Chronicle managing editor Jerry Roberts and governor Gray Davis’s communications director Phil Trounstine, is sharp, informed, and wonderfully written, but the focus is politics statewide. Newspaper blogs like the L.A. Times’s PolitiCal, which is written in part by an editor from Sacramento’s Capitol Weekly newspaper, are fast and well-reported, but no substitute for deep investigation.

“I’m not seeing a lot of websites that do a lot of the work that got lost when so much of the media was downsized,” says the L.A. Times’s Sacramento bureau chief, Evan Halper. “But I’m seeing websites that bring something else to the table that’s really interesting and frankly helps our coverage. It’s apples and oranges.”

Halper, who came to the bureau in the fall of 2002 and was promoted to chief in late 2008, is overseeing one of the largest and most watched bureaus in the capitol.* The Times has always been a leader on investigative projects, and is now one of the only outlets equipped to do any enterprise work at all—Halper himself has done some great reporting lately on the governor’s pledge, undelivered upon, to provide free background checks on in-home health aides. But the bureau chief is stretched with a smaller staff and the increasing demands of faster online coverage.

“I would like us to be spending a lot more time and attention on the prison crisis,” says Halper. “I would like us to be spending a lot more time and attention on health care programs. There are so many things that we’ve dipped into, and I think we do a good job of doing sort of quasi-investigative enterprise pieces, but they’re not project stories. We haven’t really been able to do big projects out of this bureau and I regret that.”

Though there is work he wishes his team were doing, Halper is quick to defend the work they have done. “It bugs me a little bit—even as I complain that we need more resources—that there’s sometimes this impression that we’ve just given up. If you look at the quality of the work we’ve done and the changes we’ve managed to affect, even in the last few years, with dwindling resources, it’s been pretty impressive.”

Still, you can’t deny the math: as good as some of the work coming out of Sacramento is, there are fewer people, and papers, producing it. From her new home in Virginia and her new desk in the Post’s downtown D.C. office, Kimberly Kindy has kept an eye on stories coming out of her former haunt. She’s impressed with what the Times is managing to do with such threadbare resources, and is happy to see California Watch settling in at the capitol. “Just them knowing that somebody might catch them helps. And certainly California Watch adds that.”

But Kindy worries that without an experienced and robust press corps beyond that handful of publications, it’s not just livelihoods, bureaus, and profits that are being lost—it’s democracy itself. “Not having people there watching the statehouse, covering it, exposing it, explaining it, means there are no eyes on issues and policies and practices that are going to have a national impact,” she says. “It’s not just California that’s harmed.”

*[Update: this paragraph previously stated that the Times had the largest bureau in Sacramento. In fact, the Sacramento Bee has a larger bureau, with ten people assigned to the capitol. The error has since been corrected.]

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.