In all, a survey by the American Journalism Review published in the spring of 2009 found that more than 50 newspapers and news companies nationwide had at that point stopped covering their statehouses entirely since 2003. They include the Anniston (AL) Star, the East Valley (AZ) Tribune, the Stockton (CA) Record, the Bakersfield Californian, Copley News Service (CA), Lehman Newspapers (CO), the Daily Camera (CO), the New Haven (CT) Register, the Pocatello Idaho State Journal, the Nampa Idaho Press-Tribune, the Rockford (IL) Register, the Bloomington (IL) Pantagraph, the Champaign (IL) News-Gazette, Gannett Company Inc. (IN), the Covington Kentucky Post, Community Newspaper Company (MA), the Lawrence (MA) Eagle Tribune, the Pontiac (MI) Oakland Press, the Duluth (MN) News Tribune, the St. Cloud (MN) Times, the Mankato (MN) Free Press, the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, Foster’s Daily Democrat (NH), the Trenton (NJ) Times, the Trentonian (NJ), the Staten Island (NY) Advance, the Schenectady (NY) Daily Gazette, Ottaway News Service (NY), the Troy (NY) Record, the Jamestown (NY) Post Journal, the Durham (NC) Herald-Sun, the Wilmington (NC) Star News, the Grand Forks (ND) Herald, the Minot (ND) Daily News, Gannett Company Inc. (OH), GateHouse Media (OH), Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (OK), the York (PA) Daily Record, Ottaway News Service (PA), Calkins Media (PA), the Wilkes-Barre (PA) Times Leader, the Myrtle Beach (SC) Sun News, McClatchy Newspapers (SC), the Charlotte (NC) Observer, the Argus (SD) Leader, the Rapid City (SD) Journal, Scripps Newspapers (TX), Valley Freedom Newspapers (TX), the Danville (VA) Register Bee, the Morgantown (WV) Dominion Post, and Lee Enterprises Inc. (WI).

Recent efforts to fill these gaps have come largely from the nonprofit sector. For example, the web-based Texas Tribune, California Watch, and NJ Spotlight, which are financed largely by foundations, provide substantial coverage of their respective statehouses. The Associated Press has made a commitment to keep at least one reporter in each statehouse. State government spending has increased. But the number of reporters covering it has plummeted.

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“Bell, CA…Without watchdog journalism, Bell officials got away with absurd salaries year after year.”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 46:

Perhaps the most infamous and instructive case is in Bell, California. For years, residents of Bell, population 37,000, wondered how their town officials managed to live like the rich and famous. Bell is a working-class, largely immigrant suburb of Los Angeles with a median household income of around $30,000. But the town manager, Robert Rizzo, owned a mansion by the beach and a 10-acre horse ranch outside Seattle.

“For a long time there’s been evidence that they were paying themselves big salaries,” says Christina Garcia, a community activist and teacher, “but no one knew how much.” In July 2010, Los Angeles Times reporters gave Garcia and the rest of the country a shocking answer: Rizzo was earning $787,637 a year. The police chief, Randy Adams, was earning $457,000—about 50 percent more than the Los Angeles police chief or county sheriff, and more than the president of the United States.

In 1993, when council members hired Rizzo to be interim chief administrative officer, his starting salary was $72,000.110 By September 2004, he was drawing down $300,000 annually. Ten months later, his salary jumped an additional 47 percent to $442,000.112 Rizzo’s large and regular raises continued until the L.A. Times wrote about Bell, at which point the city council ordered a staff report on city salaries. In September 2010, the Los Angeles County district attorney filed charges against eight Bell officials, alleging that they stole $5.5 million in public funds. Rizzo was charged with 53 felony counts, 44 of which pertain to misappropriation of Bell’s municipal coffers.

Why did it take so long for the financial scandal to be exposed? “A lot of residents tried to get the media’s attention, but it was impossible,” Garcia says. “The city of Bell doesn’t even have a local paper; no local media of any sort.”

Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.