Filling a reporting vacuum at statehouses nationwide

Stateline.otg.pngWASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — If the diminished ranks of statehouse reporters is one of the most glaring indicators of journalism’s current woes, Stateline offers a glimpse of a potentially promising future. The Washington-based website is at the forefront of a number of publications trying to fill the vacuum of state politics coverage left by the shrinking budgets of traditional news organizations.

Launched in 1998 through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond, Stateline has since been incorporated into the Pew Center on the States. The website was originally intended as “a clearinghouse around state news and information,” according to Lori Grange, deputy director of the Pew Center on the States, and it maintains that function with a daily roundup of state politics coverage culled from between 300 to 400 newspapers across the country. In 2010, Stateline drew an average of about 125,000 unique visitors a month.

  • Read more about
    • Executive editor Alan Ehrenhalt noted that aggregation was a relatively new phenomenon in Stateline’s incipient years, and he said that the proliferation of aggregation-based sites has encouraged Stateline to evolve and produce more original reporting. The shift has helped to expand its reach, with newspapers that subscribe to McClatchy also carrying some of Stateline’s original, reported pieces.

      “That puts more pressure, which is welcome, to be analytical and to explain what things mean, and to not simply explain what happened yesterday,” Ehrenhalt said. “You can find out what happened yesterday on Stateline, but to me, if there has been a change or evolution over the last years, it’s been towards analysis.”

      Stateline’s staff of eight reporters is based in Washington, D.C., covering beats that range from environment and energy to education. While they travel to report on campaigns and legislative sessions, Ehrenhalt said that they are not chiefly interested in the superficial, conflict-based coverage that has come to dominate political journalism. Their focus is on describing the implications of policies that emanate from statehouses; see a recent piece by former Washington Post reporter Stephen Fehr that describes various efforts to tame soaring public pension costs.

      “We’re not a wire service; I like to think of us an intelligence service,” Ehrenhalt said. “That is, we take the same events that are being written about in the daily papers and we ask, ‘Why did this happen? What are the ingredients in this event?’ And then we ask, ‘What’s going to happen as a result?'”

      Central to that effort are features like “5 Fiscal Futures” and “Legislative Review” that both fall under the Pew Center on the States’ overarching goal of informing public officials while adding reporting and analysis. “We don’t want to put out research for research’s sake,” Grange said. “We are trying to help provide rigorous nonpartisan analysis to state policymakers to help them understand the issues and to help them understand how their states compare with each other.”

      Although the Pew Center includes an advocacy arm, which works on issues like children’s health and corrections policy, Stateline remains strictly separate; Ehrenhalt emphasizes that Stateline is scrupulously impartial.

      “There is no advocacy role for Stateline whatsoever. It is analytical and nonpartisan and non-ideological,” he said. “We are very careful to make sure that line is never breached, and frankly, we never get close to it. We know that what we do does not involve advocating anything, and if we started to do that I think we would lose a lot of the credibility that we have.”

      If anything, Ehrenhalt added, functioning as part of a nonprofit frees Stateline from some of the pressures faced by traditional media outlets.

      “Nonprofit journalism is not the entire future of journalism, but it’s a major part of it, and we hope to be a major part of that change,” he said. “We don’t worry about advertising, we don’t take advertising and we don’t make money. We are here to provide a service to policymakers and to other people at the state level, and we do that without any prejudices or ideology.” Data



City: Washington, D.C.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jeremy White is a contributor to CJR.