Sunday, March 29, 2009

Who’s watching the statehouse?

Repeated budget cuts have gutted news coverage in state capitals across the country, creating the potential for what Paul Starr called a “new era of corruption” in this must-read article in the New Republic.

Dunstan McNichol, who took a buyout at the Newark Star-Ledger in December after a 30-year career in newspapers, describes in this guest contribution the collapse of coverage in New Jersey. He now is working on a new venture to restore at least some of the coverage that has been lost.

By Dunstan McNichol

The New York Times and the Trenton Times are delivered to my home each morning, but more of the news from our state capital these days comes to me in emails from friends and former sources.

It happened again last week, when a judge issued a ruling in a long-running controversy over how billions of dollars in state aid are apportioned among the state’s poorest schools.

Despite the fact the ruling marked the closing act of a drama that has dominated public debate and helped determine our tax bills for 30 years, there was not a syllable about the case in either of my morning papers. I found out about the order when someone tipped me off in an email.

I wasn’t the only newspaper reader in the dark. Of the 15 daily newspapers that circulate in New Jersey, only six carried the school-funding story.

A grand total of four reporters provided the stories to the 15 papers that carried it. A few years ago, that’s the kind of turnout that would have attended a sleepy statehouse press conference on beach access.

This was the latest symptom of a statehouse press corps in steep decline.

While more than 50 reporters covered New Jersey’s state government when the governor’s office set up a contact list about 10 years ago, there are only 14 names on the list this year.

The New York Times folded its Trenton tent more than a year ago. Gannett, which had kept six people handling statehouse dispatches for its network of six New Jersey papers, laid off all but two late last year.

And the Star-Ledger, which won a Pulitzer Prize with its largest-in-the-nation statehouse bureau in 2005, lost nine reporters and about 150 years of Statehouse experience in a buyout last December. I was one of those reporters.

This year, the Ledger merged its statehouse bureau with that of its once-bitter rival, the Bergen Record. Now, one 11-person bureau has replaced what once had been independent, competing and locally focused Statehouse staffs from The Herald-News, the Bergen Record, the Trenton Times, the Easton Express and the Star-Ledger.

The result of the contraction was apparent when the school-funding story failed to show up last week in the papers delivered to my home.

Newspaper editors grudgingly have conceded that their shrinking staffs are limiting their ability to handle time- and resource-consuming investigative and analytical pieces. But last week’s oversight shows the Trenton press corps has shrunk so much that its ability to cover even basic news has been compromised.

The same holds true in Hartford, where Connecticut’s secretary of state publicly lamented the decline of press coverage last year. The story is similar in almost every statehouse in the country.

In the absence of general-interest coverage and analysis of government policy, the creation of the rules, laws and budgets that affect everyone’s wallets and lives is bound to become more and more of an insider’s game.

Special interests will become the only interests unless a new delivery model is devised to restore the public’s seat at the public policy debate table.

I covered state government for the Record and the Ledger for 15 years, so I knew enough about the school-funding issue to learn more about it when it failed to appear in my newspapers.

But how much more unreported news is happening? I don’t even know what I am missing.

How can public debate be informed, or even initiated, without a sustainable press corps capable of covering and broadcasting credible information on important public policy developments?

The historic model for covering statehouse news is in rapid retreat. The time is ripe for a new model, a model that recognizes the value of the information that is being lost.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Donna Trussell said...

Hi Dusty, from your old pals Robert and Donna in Kansas City. Great column. Good luck with your new venture.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Matt Schofield said...

And, if statehouse coverage is suffering (which at least has statewide interest), how much more dire is the decline in resources for covering city halls, county courthouses, school boards. And, of course, the old bugaboos of water boards, utility boards, etc, that hold little daily interest, but have enormous impact on our lives. The pain of this industry goes so much deeper than this industry.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Martian Bracelets said...

www.publicola.net, in Washington state, formed in the wake of the Seattle PI closure specifically to cover the state legislature.

Hope you like it.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Dvorkin said...

It's not much better in Canada as the federal Parliament and provincial legislatures lose their reporters through massive cutbacks. Part of it is the result of a longtime, growing disdain for so-called "process" reporting. Somehow stories about "the people" - as important as they can be - have replaced the workings of our democracies from the view of "the people" who buy the newspapers, watch and listen to newscasts. the result is a disconnect from and a disdain for the political process.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Steve Ross said...

As part president of New Jersey Environmental lobby and a former Columbia J-school prof, let me say that Trenton coverage was never particularly good. I remember testifying against a land swap that truncated Bergen County's premier park, Overpeck, and allowed the boro of Teaneck to put a heavy-duty highrise development on the park's edge. No coverage at all. and that was in the late 1970s.

Any thoughts about how the New York Times does with a two-person bureau in Albany?

6:32 PM  
Blogger Mike Lange said...

We're in much better shape in Maine, despite the recession. In fact, the Bangor Daily News - the state's second-largest paper - recently restored its state house reporter position.

For this and many other reasons, our spring conference this week will deal with how to cover state government with fewer resources.

But even if every newspaper in the state could afford a state house reporter, the newshole will still be tight until advertising sales pick up.

Major stories are usually covered. It's the ones that fall under the radar screen that I worry about - especially the bills that will pick the pockets of taxpayers.

2:45 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

"I covered state government for the Record and the Ledger for 15 years, so I knew enough about the school-funding issue to learn more about it when it failed to appear in my newspapers."


So, you weren't 'left in the dark' anywhere near as much as the ordinary citizen - you knew where to go, who to call. But you undoubtedly had to 'gather' your information only by person-to-person communication (email or phone).

Now imagine if those P2P means become the *only* -or principal- means by which all us ordinary Joes learn about issues of common concern to us, our families and communities.

Remember pictures of the tangle of telephone wires strung between every available street post in American cities in the olden days?

That's the future of our new 'news medium' should newspaper journalism fade out.

We'll all be chattering (tweeting?) away between one another, but we won't know the important questions to be asked. Any meaningful feedback mechanism to our government will have been severed, as we'll be starved of relevant & critical information.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Echoing Matt Schofield, above: At least there is SOMEONE covering the statehouse in New Jersey. I live in a county in California with more than 20 distinct municipalities, and I doubt more than 3 or 4 of them receive any regular scrutiny by reporters (the one I live in not included). True, the bigger issues are being covered in Sacramento - budgets, and education transportation and environmental policy -- by an albeit smaller press corps. But so many small quality-of-life decisions are made in city halls, and no one is paying attention.

12:40 PM  

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