Oregon’s dwindling statehouse reporters are ‘treading water’

The Oregon State Capitol, in Salem. Photo via Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr.

SAUL HUBBARD WAS AN INTERN at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, when the paper tapped him to cover the state capitol and sent him to Salem in 2011. He felt intimidated by The Oregonian’s veteran capitol reporters, and recalls a look of surprise on Oregonian reporter Michelle Cole’s face when he told her covering the capitol was his first real journalism job.

Cole, who now works for a public affairs firm, doesn’t recall the exchange but says that in her experience—she covered Salem and Boise—the statehouse beat was typically reserved for more seasoned journalists.

“I’m not saying that everyone was old or grizzled with experience,” she writes in an email. “But it was rare if not unheard of for somebody to start inside the capitol.”

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The Register-Guard’s move was indicative of cuts that continue to sweep capitol press corps nationwide. Rosters for Oregon’s past legislative sessions show that the Salem press corps has shrunk in recent years by nearly two-thirds, from 37 in 2005 to a total of 13 for this year’s session.

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The Oregonian previously had “a platoon” of statehouse reporters, says Mark Hass, a state senator who formerly covered the statehouse for KATU. Two decades ago, as many as eight people covered the statehouse for The Oregonian; currently, in the wake of layoffs, the paper has one dedicated statehouse reporter. For the 2018 session, the official capitol press corps did not include a single TV reporter. Hass complained that TV reporters now only come down to Salem if there’s a scandal, and rarely cover the day-to-day work of the legislature.

As Oregon’s capitol press corps has grown smaller, it has become less experienced. Of the 13 statehouse reporters in Salem as of April, seven have covered the statehouse for three years or fewer. Hubbard, once the rookie, is now one of the Salem press corps’ most experienced members. Reporters increasingly cover other beats in addition to their statehouse coverage—as if a governor, 90 lawmakers, and dozens of state agencies aren’t enough.

A survey of Oregon’s 13 statehouse reporters conducted by this journalist in April showed that nearly all believe the press corps is understaffed. When asked to rate the quality of their coverage, about half of the statehouse reporters said it was “good.” No one rated their coverage “excellent,” and nearly a quarter rated the press corps’ coverage “poor.” In interviews, more than a dozen current and former Oregon statehouse reporters and editors agreed that the quality and quantity of political news stories suffers under a smaller press corps, and that the lack of information spells trouble for democracy. “We’re treading water,” Hubbard says.

 

Capitol reporters say they’ve been increasingly forced to forgo daily turn-of-the-screw stories that update audiences on incremental progress of a bill or a policy change.

 

WHEN AN OUTLET loses a statehouse reporter—or any reporter, for that matter—it creates a ripple effect within that newsroom. Remaining reporters might try to take on some of the work, but the original level of coverage is lost. Michelle Brence, former politics editor at The Oregonian, remembers going from three full-time statehouse reporters to two. With three people, it was easier to divide and conquer the beat. One person covered the governor’s office, and the other two covered the legislature’s two chambers. “When I got down to two, I really had one for the legislature and one for the governor’s office,” she says. “What suffered was I really didn’t have anyone for state agencies at all. Just covering the [legislature] and the governor’s office was too much to keep up with.” Long hours at the capitol spurred a high turnover rate, she says.

This lack of experience has hurt the quality of the statehouse reporting, says Hubbard, the Register-Guard reporter. “It takes a while for legislators to trust that you can do a fair and balanced job,” he says. “It’s not that people are bad reporters. If it’s your first session, you’re covering these issues without a lot of context.” New reporters or harried veterans risk reporting from spin-heavy press releases. Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his work uncovering former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl, says complicated stories—tax policy, for instance—are some of the first to go with a diminished press corps.

Hillary Borrud, The Oregonian’s remaining capitol reporter, allowed that some things go uncovered. “We have to generalize more,” she says. “We aren’t able to zero in on agencies. There’s just fewer people to catch bills or things that are flying under the radar.”

Borrud and other capitol reporters say they’ve been increasingly forced to forgo daily turn-of-the-screw stories that update audiences on incremental progress of a bill or a policy change. Instead, they’re trying to put out more in-depth work. “I try to cover things that other people aren’t covering,” Borrud says. “My strategy is that there are enough great stories out there for everyone, and I hope that we can do our share of unique coverage and hopefully scoops.”

Hubbard agrees. “I’ve certainly tried to move away from just doing the story of the day,” he says, in favor of long-term enterprise stories. He’s able to do this in large part because the Associated Press has kept reporters in Salem.

In statehouses throughout the country, news outlets have come to rely more on the Associated Press as they’ve pulled their reporters away from their capitol beats. Chris Grygiel, AP’s Northwest news editor, says the wire service has one person stationed in Salem year-around, and one reporter who helps out during session.

“We still have people in every statehouse,” he says. “Statehouse reporting is a big part of what AP does because members rely on it”—a reliance that Grygiel says has grown in recent years.

But the AP’s approach to political reporting has shifted, too. Where its reporters used to provide daily stories as bills moved through the chambers, they now try to identify key issues at the beginning of the session and track those, Grygiel says. Budget stories are always on the top of the list, along with education and transportation. Coverage typically includes stories about the balance of power between the two parties as well, he says.

 

We’re trying to develop a model where we can get additional funding beyond the newspapers to support the capitol bureau. That’s been a little bit of struggle to make that work, but we haven’t given up on the concept just yet.

 

SOME OREGON OUTLETS are experimenting with different funding models to compensate reporters. The Pamplin and East Oregonian media groups, which own roughly 35 papers throughout the state, share two statehouse reporters. Pamplin publisher Mark Garber said the arrangement has worked well since it was instituted a few years ago. “We’re committed to continuing it,” he says, noting that the outlets operate like a small wire service, offering capitol coverage to papers outside of the two media groups.

The Pamplin empire is based in Portland, and publishes 25 papers throughout the greater Portland area, 21 of which are published weekly or twice weekly, Garber says. For now, these hyperlocal papers seem to be holding their own against the larger metros in terms of revenue. Garber says while Pamplin still gets most of its money from print ads, it’s landed some of the area’s bigger advertisers, and online ad revenue is growing.

Garber has also tried to boost that revenue with an “Oregon Capitol Insider” newsletter sent out every Friday, but with limited success.

“We’re trying to develop a model where we can get additional funding beyond the newspapers to support the capitol bureau,” he says. “That’s been a little bit of struggle to make that work, but we haven’t given up on the concept just yet.”

Healthcare industry news site The Lund Report has seen success with premium subscriptions. Chris Gray, the nonprofit’s sole full-time reporter, works out of the statehouse. However, while this format works for the healthcare industry, it probably wouldn’t work for education or social services, according to Gray. “There’s so much money in healthcare, and that’s why healthcare journalism is one of those that’s doing okay,” he says. “The healthcare system is so complicated and there’s so much money involved in it, people are willing to spend money to understand what’s going on.” The Lund Report also makes money via monthly breakfast events that function as fundraisers.

Jeff Mapes, a longtime statehouse reporter for The Oregonian who recently moved to Oregon Public Broadcasting, seems on-board with the donor-funded model. “It turns out that in the new media environment, begging for money is a good solution,” he says. The approach seems to be working out for OPB, which, thanks in large part to its monthly contributors, is in the midst of growing its newsroom. For the fiscal year ending June 2017, OPB brought in nearly $24 million in contributions. After expenses, the nonprofit was solidly in the black, an independent audit found. The Portland-based nonprofit gets two-thirds of its funding from roughly 140,000 donors, according to a 2017 OPB report.

In addition to Mapes, who works part-time, OPB now has two reporters dedicated to the state government beat. That investment alone may make 2019 the first year in more than a decade that the press corps doesn’t shrink—provided it doesn’t shed any more reporters.

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This article is a version of Marum’s thesis, completed for Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, from which she recently graduated with a BA in Communication.

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Anna Marum is a former Oregonian reporter living in Portland, Oregon. She has reported on statehouses in Oregon and Washington, and now manages communications for a nonprofit economic development organization.