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.”