A new report from the American Journalism Review provides some concrete data to back up what is readily evident to anyone who follows state politics and (still) reads a newspaper these days: Capitol press corps are shrinking. The NCSL blog summarizes the report’s findings:
AJR just released its 2009 count of state house reporters and found 355 newspaper staff reporters are still on the capitol beat full time. The tally is a precipitous drop from the magazine’s last survey in 2003, when 524 reporters were on the beat. Trends in the newspaper business in the last six years, however, made it inevitable that the statehouse press corps would shrink substantially.
The Oklahoma Gazette’s Scott Cooper recently penned an excellent cover article on this phenomenon in Oklahoma, documenting the steady erosion in the number of print and broadcast media assigned to the Capitol, which accelerated early this year when the Tulsa World and Oklahoman cut their combined Capitol bureaus from six reporters to three. Then the state’s two major dailies decided to share their Capitol staffs, so stories by World reporters now regularly appear in the Oklahoman and vice versa. Overall, Cooper reports that the number of reporters assigned to the Capitol has declined from a peak of 39 to 1978 to a “number in the teens” currently. The recent layoffs at the major papers led to the loss of two veteran Capitol reporters, John Greiner and Mick Hinton, who had rare understandings of how the Legislature really operates, as well as one promising younger reporter, Tom Lindley.
The print and broadcast media reporters assigned to the Capitol are certainly scrambling to cover as many stories as possible and do consistently good work given the constraints. But as OU Journalism professor Warren Veith states in the Gazette article, “if you’ve got three people providing the coverage that used to be done by six people, those remaining people aren’t going to have much time to go out and find good enterprising stories.”
Americans say they don’t like the media and may not be too heartbroken about reporters losing their jobs. But this is about more than the reporting industry; it’s about democracy. For over a century, we’ve counted on reporters to dig into what’s going on behind the scenes. First, there’s the aspect of ethics:
- Who is contributing to campaigns and what do they expect for their money?
- Who has the most input into the laws and regulations that affect us all?
- Who may be crossing ethical lines?
And then there’s a whole range of things the public needs to know about the proper operation of government (which is the vast majority):
- Where does the money come from and what services does it fund?
- Which programs are working and which ones need improvement?
- Who benefits from government services? Who is being left out?
- What is government doing to make Oklahoma’s future brighter?
- What are the long-term impacts of today’s decisions?
These are questions that must be asked and answered to protect a thriving democracy. Government does not answer them all; it’s got too much on its plate and is not suited to completely hold itself accountable. Individuals can only do so much; most of us lack the time, interest, and resources to dig into these questions. Traditionally, reporters have been the answer. It is simply impossible to cut reporting without cutting government accountability. The media isn’t the only loser here; it’s citizens who stand to lose the most.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the shrinking press corps is facing an ever-growing political PR machine working to spin the news from policymakers’ perspectives. The House of Representatives alone has a seven-person media and communications division, while the Senate has a three-person media team, plus one working for the minority party (information about the Governor’s staff is unavailable from his website). These staffs churn out a steady stream of press releases, along with sound and video clips and columns from legislators’ points of view. The result is that on many days, the media is following only the stories that elected officials want them to cover. Those aren’t always the stories the public needs to know.