Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Number of statehouse reporters down by one-third in six years, American Journalism Review finds

Reflecting what has been reported here for some time, American Journalism Review has "found a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols," Managing Editor Jennifer Dorroh writes, reporting on the magazine's fifth count of statehouse reporters and the first since 2003.

"The tally found only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation's state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago," Dorroh reports. "It discovered that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago. The number of full-time reporters remained the same in four states and increased modestly in two."

While the reductions are not surprising, given what has happened to newspapers in the last few years, they come at a time when more watchdog journalism is needed, Dorroh notes: "The gutting of America's capitol press corps comes just as a large portion of the federal stimulus package becomes the responsibility of state governments." Issue coverage is a problem, too:

When reporting on health care reform in Connecticut, "I and a couple reporters had the story to ourselves," says Ted Mann, a statehouse reporter for The Day of New London. "The smaller the room gets, the easier it is for the government to go around the press and avoid answering questions they don't want to answer."
One bright spot, relatively speaking, may be The Associated Press. It "has a robust presence at many capitols, although it, too, has cut back at some," Dorroh reports, quoting AP Managing Editor Michael Oreskes: "We view statehouse coverage as essential and are acutely aware of our increasing responsibility at state houses as others are forced by hard times to reduce their presence. We have about 85 fulltime state house reporters and expand this significantly during legislative sessions. We have added more people this year than in past years for the reasons I described."

However, AP usually cannot function as a watchdog on individual legislators or area delegations, long an area of specialty for statehouse reporters from smaller papers. And even those that still have reporters often find them stretched thin. "Following layoffs in November, [Walter] Jones is the lone statehouse reporter for Morris Communications' four Georgia dailies, whose readership does not overlap," Dorroh writes, quoting him: "There are four legislative delegations to watch. Trying to keep up with all of them is not going to leave a lot of time for statewide watchdog stuff." (Read more)

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