It was 4pm, nearing the end of a workday for North Carolina’s state legislators, political experts, and public relations flacks, and I was a college freshman sitting in class waiting for a call back before 5pm came and all hope was lost.
Finally, a source from Raleigh called. I ran out of my introductory journalism class, phone and computer in tow, and interviewed the source—trying not to rush him, but knowing I had to return to class. Sometimes those interviews were in a quiet hallway, and I’d hope I was not disturbing other classes. Other times, my interviews with legislators took place in the nearest bathroom, and I’d try to signal to other occupants that I was Doing Something Important For The School Newspaper.
During my two years covering the statehouse for The Daily Tar Heel, UNC Chapel Hill’s independent daily student newspaper, where I am now a senior and lead our investigations team, I understood that this sort of reporting was in decline at the legacy news outlets where I hoped to one day work. Last week came a detailed look at that decline, courtesy of Pew Research Center. In a report titled “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” Pew found that the number of full-time statehouse reporters dropped by about 35 percent between 2003 and 2014, and that more than two-thirds of US newspapers are without a statehouse reporter. The report also noted that 14 percent of statehouse reporters are college students. Pew estimated 126 state political reporters are students working for college newspapers or nonprofits, and the other 97 students work temporarily or intern for professional outlets.
That last fact, to my mind, hints at one silver lining in Pew’s survey. Pew didn’t include any reporters from The Daily Tar Heel in its count of North Carolina statehouse reporters because we are not based there, though we do publish dozens of state politics-oriented stories a month and occasionally go to the capitol for stories.
In other words, the number of college students acting as statehouse reporters is higher than Pew’s tally. Pew researched the number of statehouse reporters through both written and verbal questionnaires with outlets, said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of Pew’s Journalism Project. Jurkowitz said college-based publications or student newspapers were often discovered through these means. “We put months and months to create this census and we were as thorough as we possibly could be. It’s a good census, but it is possible that some students evaded our nets,” he said. Jurkowitz told me that the two North Carolina college students that Pew did count worked for the Raleigh News & Observer and North Carolina Health News, a nonprofit. The college news outlets with the most reporters at their respective statehouses, Jurkowitz said, are Missouri Digital News at the University of Missouri (24), Cronkite News Service at Arizona State University (15), and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland (12).
The Daily Tar Heel offers a different brand of statehouse reporting. With the largest newsroom in the Carolinas, the paper is considered a community newspaper, with the bulk of coverage focusing on campus, town and sports news. We also have more than 20 staff writers who report on state and national news with a special emphasis on the state legislature and the 17-campus UNC system. We aren’t always able to go to the statehouse, but we are always watching it.
When writing about national news or trends in higher education, The Daily Tar Heel tries to find a UNC angle or some other way to appeal to students, faculty and Chapel Hill residents. For example, when the 2012 state and gubernatorial elections led to the first Republican takeover of both branches in 140 years, we wrote our stories through the lens of what this could look like for higher education. During election night, I asked legislators what they thought of specific education proposals or issues, such as the proposal of performance-based funding for the UNC system, rather than worrying about big-picture political maneuvering, which professional outlets tend to devote more attention to.
“You work for who?”
The Daily Tar Heel’s primary political coverage is related to funding the UNC-system and UNC Chapel Hill, because both have faced six years of unprecedented cuts to their budgets. The past decade has seen huge tuition hikes and slashes to positions, which has a direct effect on the community we serve. The Daily Tar Heel has worked to show how the political scenario affects higher education, from the perspectives of both legislators and UNC employees. We always aim to put a face to the headlines—when we wrote about college affordability, we put on our front pages people affected most. The people we write for and about are our peers, professors, administrators and neighbors.
Some professional reporters treat us like we’re a threat and strive to compete with us, but most recognize that we still need to learn and pass along helpful advice they’ve learned at the statehouse. The same goes for state lawmakers. Those with a large population of students in their constituency generally take time to speak with our reporters, while longtime politicians don’t give us the time of day. In addition, student reporters struggle with working for a newspaper with little name recognition. “You work for who?” is the most common response I received when dialing legislators’ assistants and staff.
Since we spend most business hours in class, student reporters typically can’t go to the capitol. Instead, we rely on phone interviews, meaning most of our stories are written after major events have transpired rather than breaking news. This leads to the aforementioned bathroom interviews or spamming a few caucuses via email in the hopes of one person responding.
College journalism sometimes feels like amateurism, but that doesn’t mean our stories lack analysis. We write about the most pressing political topics and localize them to mean something to our readers. For example, The Michigan Daily took on health care law in a story last year that examined the Affordable Care Act’s impacts on the University of Michigan, as well as the state and nation. The Daily Tar Heel examined university budget models in a 2,000 word explanatory piece that earned a 2012 Pacemaker award for its comprehensiveness.
A call to action
It’s not an easy job. This could explain why some of the top-ranked college newspapers in the country—including The Harvard Crimson and Cornell Daily Sun—don’t have clear political sections on their websites. (Granted, papers at public universities may have more reasons—funding cuts, tuition hikes—to watch their state government.)
Some college journalists, whether at private or public institutions, might think the statehouse is too far removed to warrant coverage, or that other outlets simply can report on it better. But there are many areas that go untouched, such as what certain legislation could mean for job prospects or how K-12 education laws might influence college preparedness.
I would like to see the number of college journalists taking on the statehouse grow. In light of Pew’s survey, college newsrooms should take the time to reflect: Given cutbacks at legacy outlets, what oversight can we provide of our state’s government? How can we investigate the capitol, even if we can’t physically be there? State politicians might see a shrinking statehouse press corps as a license to misbehave. College journalists should see it as a call to action.