The News Blackout of State Politics

Important laws are being crafted at state capitals across this country about things that you care about — gay marriage, gun regulation, abortion, schools, drug policy, and state colleges. In fact, you probably have more opinions and personal interest in things going on in your state capital, than you do in Washington. But you probably aren’t hearing about it on the local news shows or in your local paper. These laws are being crafted in the dark.

Partly, this is because you aren’t reading your local paper or watching your local news. Most of those news sources don’t exist anymore. And you are too distracted with all the other fun things on the Internet to find the weird cable channel that does cover this information.

newspaper-decline

Pew has some great statistics on the decline of news coverage of state politics. In the past ten years, there has been a 35% drop in the number of reporters covering state politics.

On average, there are 15 full-time reporters working in each statehouse, but the total varies from state to state. The largest full-time contingent (53 full-time reporters) works in Austin, Texas, followed by 43 full-timers in Sacramento, California. Conversely, the state with the fewest full-time journalists at the capitol is South Dakota, with only two; one of them works for the Associated Press and the other writes for six newspapers. The Pew Research study found a clear correlation between the population of a state and the size of its statehouse press contingent.

Who’s filling in the gap? Students, non-profits, probably some state politics bloggers. But that’s not enough.

14 thoughts on “The News Blackout of State Politics

  1. It’s likely especially true in New Jersey. In the 1980s, the ten largest papers in New Jersey, most of which could reasonably have been expected to have, if not a state house bureau itself, at least a state house reporter, probably were owned by different owners. That was before Gannet went on its buying binge and purchased many of the mid-sized ones, from the Asbury Park Press on down. It probably would not be that hard to figure out the hard numbers.

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  2. I don’t know who is covering the South Dakota statehouse, but I did just learn that I’ve been mispronouncing the capital of South Dakota my whole life. How I was supposed to know that “Pierre” was a single syllable?

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  3. I find I’ve been going to “StateImpact” –a lot more recently to find out about some local issues.

    link: http://stateimpact.npr.org/

    It’s an NPR project and only covers 5 states (Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas) and the three topics they cover are education, energy and economy–I’m interested in the energy issues.

    You might like the education coverage.

    But–to your point about the lack of interest in local news–when they started in 2011, they were planning on covering all 50 states, but they’ve had “fundraising difficulties” so that didn’t happen. In fact they went from 7 states down to 5. If something like this could hang on long enough for people to know that it exists and where to find it–I think it could become popular. Of course, it has the same problem as any other news site–how to pay for itself and its reporting.

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  4. We live in Virginia, where state politics have always been something of a carnival/freak show. I just heard that our local paper is cutting staff left and right due to its inability to turn a profit. THis certainly explains why there is less state and local news being produced — YOu can’t just buy it canned from AP and run it in your paper.

    I also used to read a lot of local news online but the local paper has recently installed a pay wall, and the quality of the reporting isn’t really good enough to pay for.

    We have started forcing ourselves to buy the local Sunday paper and read it — We discovered we were missing out on knowing about important local things — like changes in the schools, zoning issues, which local official is going to jail for corruption, etc. Also, we’re hoping to downsize and move to a smaller house in a less expensive school district once the kids go to college, so I’m forcing myself to pay attention to real estate-related news.

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  5. The publisher of my local newspaper expressed a desire for fewer older white male readers. He got what he wanted. I don’t have to be asked twice to not read something.

    So don’t blame the readers; blame the Sulzbergers.

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  6. We’ve had a bit of a kerfuffle about our local public radio station, which did cover hyperlocal news, perhaps not investigative journalism, but through conversation that would at least make you aware of what was happening locally. The main method was a talk show format in which journalists would bring in stories they thought were important, locally, low budget, lots of moderately boring information. But, it was there, until the show got cancelled.

    I think there’s a real loss in the investigative en,, the work the LA Times did on uncovering the pension/pay scandals in the industrial towns of LA, like Bell and Vernon, CA. I’ve known about that stuff for years, because it’s an outgrowth of water/electrical utility politics in CA, but they broke that scandal and changed things.

    Now, with our public radio station changing formats (more short features, less talk) and our 2nd newspaper dying, my main source of local news is a school news blogger, a volunteer activist, who no longer has children in the schools, but tries her best to cover school politics in the city (along with a smattering of other news). She is very much an amateur, though, not the least because the work (and she does a lot, attending and reporting on board meetings, following public meetings, court cases, and the law) is all a labor of love. And, for the labor of love, she has to deal with a lot of complaining, too.

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    1. Traditionally, the school beat is what you do before moving on to bigger and better things, so your amateur blogger may be much better informed than the 20-somethings that have traditionally written ed stories. (Ever notice how often traditional ed stories follow the model, “Awesome new innovation that is oddly similar to previous 40 awesome new innovations that didn’t work”? That’s partly because it’s a never-ending supply of rookie reporters without school age kids writing those pieces.)

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    2. Oh, she’s incredibly well informed and knowledgeable. She has depth of historical knowledge about educational reform trends as well as the school district. Her interest started as a mother navigating the system for her kids and moved on to serving on public committees and then eventually into a blog. Her content knowledge can’t be beaten.

      She is not a journalist though, and doesn’t pretend to be one, in those times when it might make a difference (i.e. crossing the lines between advocacy and news, etc.). It’s kind of like when journalists do science (dateline experiments, facebook, etc.) and when scientists do.

      And, yes, our education reporters at the local newspapers are exactly as you describe, youngsters being amazed by the latest fad. The better ones read the blog and gain some quick in depth knowledge that way.

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