Although there are still dozens of reporters covering the big stories about Congress, there are far fewer covering Congressional delegations—especially their work on local issues. Twenty-seven states have no Washington reporters, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by about half since the mid-1980s; the number of reporters working for regional papers dropped from 200 in the mid-1990s to 73 at the end of 2008. The Down East website in Maine, which has no Washington reporters, described well the implications:
In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know. Maine voters are dependent on the delegation’s assessment of itself.
“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:
State Government: States spent more than $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2008, compared with $977 billion in 2003—and yet the number of reporters covering statehouses has fallen sharply. A comprehensive survey by the American Journalism Review found that the number of statehouse reporters has dropped by one-third—from 524 in 2003 to 355 in 2009.
The story is the same in state after state.
During a time when New Jersey government has been beset by scandals, the number of journalists covering the capitol has fallen from 39 in 2003 to 15 in 2009.
In California, which is battling one of the nation’s worst budget crises, 29 newspaper reporters covered the statehouse in 2009, down from 40 six years earlier.
Georgia had 14 full-time statehouse newspaper reporters in 2003; in 2009 it had five.
In 1989, 83 people covered the state legislature, governor, or executive agencies in Texas. In 2009, 53 did, according to the Houston Chronicle.
In 2001, Albany, New York had 51 journalists and 29 news organizations covering the statehouse. By 2008, the numbers had fallen to 42 journalists and 27 news organizations. The Staten Island Advance, the Schenectady Daily Gazette, the Troy Record, the Jamestown Post Journal, and the Ottaway News Service are among those that have eliminated their statehouse bureaus entirely.
In Pennsylvania, Jeanette Krebs, editorial page editor for the Harrisburg Patriot News, remembers more than 40 correspondents crowding the Capitol’s pressroom in 1987 when she was an intern. In 1994, when she was president of the Pennsylvania State Legislative Correspondents Association, there were 35. Now, 19 reporters cover the statehouse, including some who come only when the legislature is in session. “Our state Capitol used to be bustling with the media,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation. “Now, you can swing a dead cat and not hit anybody in the state Capitol newsroom.”
Nine journalists—print and TV—covered the Nevada legislature in 2010. In better times, according to Ed Vogel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, more than 20 would have been there. As the coverage has shrunk by half, the state has more than tripled in size.99 “If you’re not there, it changes how legislators look at it,” says Vogel, the lone remaining reporter from his newspaper. “The oversight, the watchdogs won’t be there. It’s a benefit to society that won’t exist anymore.”
In many cases, smaller newspapers have abandoned statehouses altogether. For years, the Champaign (IL) News-Gazette had a reporter in the Capitol, in Springfield, to cover topics of particular importance to Champaign-Urbana—home to the University of Illinois’ largest campus—such as higher education bills and state pension issues. In 2010, legislative coverage was done from the Champaign newsroom. “We miss the in-depth coverage and the perspective and nuance that having a reporter there every day provides,” editor John Beck says. “What we’re missing more is the enterprise coverage…the investigative coverage. As newsrooms have lost staff members, which we have like all other newsrooms, it makes it harder to do these kinds of stories.”
For nearly five years, Aaron Chambers was the statehouse bureau chief for the Rockford (IL) Register Star. At one point, he broke the story that the executive branch was improperly managing government contracts, potentially risking millions of taxpayer dollars. In 2008, his paper eliminated its statehouse bureau; Chambers went into public relations.