First, the bad news, that is if you care about having a functional democracy not completely dominated by corporate interests, lobbyists, rich people, etc.
Tom Fahey, a longtime bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader, left in 2012 to take a job with the state Bankers Association. The Keene Sentinel, the Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily Democrat all used to maintain statehouse bureaus. Now, they only send reporters for special events.
In Richmond, Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis took a job with a public relations firm after being fired over a story during last year’s gubernatorial race. Michael Sluss, the longtime statehouse reporter for the Roanoke Times, took a position at the same firm. Christina Nuckols, another statehouse veteran who wrote for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Roanoke Times, took a position with the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. And Julian Walker, another former Virginian-Pilot reporter, joined a different public relations firm in June.
Those two states are part of a nationwide drop in statehouse coverage. Since 2003, the number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent, according to a new study published Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Less than one third of the 801 daily newspapers in the U.S. send a reporter – full-time or part-time – to state capitol buildings, Pew found, citing data from the Alliance of Audited Media.
Now, the good news? Oh wait, actually there isn’t any good news here. In fact, there’s even worse news: based on the number of comments – ZERO, as of 2:00 pm on Friday, a day after the story was posted – on the Washington Post story about the “precipitous decline of state political coverage,” the public simply doesn’t care about this stuff. Which would, of course, be consistent with the “paradox in the reality of American politics: The more local an office, the more of an impact it has on any given person’s daily life. Yet the more local an election, the lower the voter interest.” Which, of course, is exactly OPPOSITE of the way it should be.
So where does that leave us, other than up the proverbial S**ts Creek without a proverbial paddle? Here are a few points from a conversation I had a few minutes with a national-level Democrat, one of the smartest observers/analysts I know on U.S. politics.
*“We thought state blogs would fill the gap, but the revenue never followed the eyeballs. So we’re left still pondering present and future business models for monetizing the state political news industry.”
*“More than a few reporters have leapt from the newsgathering business to the spin side, because that’s where the money is, and people tend to follow the money, whether consciously or not.”
*”The thing about running a news organization now is that: 1) barriers to entry are low, because the web exists; 2) the ability to create local monopolies/oligopolies is low, because the web exists; 3) people can disaggregate the traditional news bundle and seek the information they prefer to consume, because the web exists; 4) companies and institutions can disintermediate the organizations traditionally in the business of disseminating information, because the web exists.
*Meanwhile, on the news consumer side, people have limited time, and lack the appetite to spend extensive time curating new sources of information on a continuing basis.” Plus, there’s basically information overload at this point, with vastly increasing volumes of information pouring out at us, while last I checked the day still has 24 hours in it.
*Can any of the new news models make up for the loss of basic reporting, shoe leather, pounding the beat, digging, investigating, etc? Short answer: nope, doesn’t look like it.
*Finally, on the internet, there are no real geographic barriers to what we read. Ergo, “in an era of news organizations that can compete across geographic markets, bounded only by language, those whose product qualities (whether ideological or judged on other subjective means) draw the largest audiences will win.” Where does that leave reporting on what’s happening in the Virginia General Assembly, for instance? Given the exodus we’ve seen in recent years of top-notch, experienced Virginia political reporters, it doesn’t look good.
The big problem, of course, is that if nobody’s watching the chicken coop except for the foxes – lobbyists, wealthy and powerful interests of all types – and the public doesn’t give a crap, then what’s to stop our elected officials from getting away with all kinds of shenanigans? Sure, having open information sources like VPAP is great, but that doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of how influence is peddled in Richmond. Plus, what percentage of Virginians do you think check out VPAP regularly? 1%? 0.1%? 0.01%? Whatever, it’s a tiny number.
Anyway, on that cheery note, enjoy your weekend. While you’re relaxing, just remember: people who want something from your state government, and ultimately your tax dollars, are always on the job…while, increasingly, nobody’s watching.
P.S. If you want to be further depressed, see the Pew Research Center report (“America’s Shifting Statehouse Press: Can New Players Compensate for Lost Legacy Reporters?”).