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.”