November 6, 2014

How to improve statehouse reporting?

Credit: Flickr / gllmbernard

Credit: Flickr / gllmbernard

Kelly Born, Hewlett Foundation

Kelly Born, Hewlett Foundation

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on how to improve statehouse reporting – looking not just at the reporters physically in our nation’s 50 state capitols, but also those covering the effects of Statehouse policies on agencies, departments, and the executive branch.

Why is this important? (At least) two reasons: First, fully half of the state legislatures that met in 2012 passed more bills in one year than congress passed in two years. That’s a lot of bills.

Second, just as with the broader field of journalism, Statehouse reporting has experienced dramatic reductions in coverage in recent years. Pew Research Center estimates a 35% decline in statehouse newspaper reporters since 2003, an even steeper decline than that in newsrooms overall during the same period. That leaves fewer than 1,600 journalists in America’s capitols—and only 47% of those are full-time. That averages out to 15 full-time reporters per state, but the actual numbers vary widely, from a high of 53 in Texas to just two in South Dakota. According to Pew:

  • “Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter—full-time or part-time—to the statehouse.”
  • “Fully 86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter—full -time or part-time—to the statehouse.” This is especially problematic in that most Americans (particularly less ideological ones) still get the majority of their news from local TV.
  • “Students account for 14% (223 in all) of the overall statehouse reporting corps.” In fact four states—Missouri, Nevada, Kansas, and Arizona—have more students than FTEs.

The Chicago conference was designed to explore whether and how foundations might help to address these problems. Orchestrated by Kevin Davis of the 100+ member Investigative News Network (INN, a Madison Initiative grantee) and moderated by Steven Waldman, journalist, media entrepreneur, and former Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the event brought together a small (20-ish) but wide-ranging group. This included representatives from the Pew Research Center, the Associated Press, and Storify, alongside some of the nation’s most successful nonprofit journalism outlets, including Center for Public Integrity, the Texas Tribune (both Hewlett Foundation grantees), and Vermont’s VT Digger. It included representatives from Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (also a Hewlett grantee) and American University’s School of Communications, alongside leaders of politically-relevant nonprofits like PopVox, the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy, Chicago’s Better Government Association, Al-Jazeera. It also included representatives from the Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Ford, Knight, and McCormick foundations. And of course me, from the Hewlett Foundation.

We discussed three primary goals that a healthy Statehouse reporting field would help to support:

  • Holding officials accountable (and thereby helping to deter bad behavior)
  • Engaging the public with relevant, useful information
  • Leveling the playing field between special interests and the public

We then discussed a LOT of barriers to these goals—the discussion filled up four of five flipcharts (in pretty small print). These fell into a couple of loose, often overlapping categories which I’ll attempt to summarize here:

  • Lack of sustainable business models. This was the background to all of our discussion.
    Public trust in information. Including discussion of coverage that is more “horse-racy” than substantive, polarization of the media, lack of journalistic standards, and the increasing influence of special interests.
  • Public engagement with the news. Including news’ lack of nuance / personalization, and the perceived lack of understanding (on the part of news producers) of “consumers’” preferences. All driving low public interest in political news.
  • News quality. Including concerns that news has become more “reactive than proactive” and that so little is translated into Spanish or other languages. This also touched on the lack of “data or journalistic standards” and of “data interoperability” (e.g., overarching taxonomies) that would allow data to speak to each other across geographies or organizational silos, which would allow for better trend interpretation.
  • Reporter efficiency. Including the lack of training and institutional knowledge, declining reporter relationships (e.g., access to tips, time to conduct interviews, etc.). This discussion also touched on reporters’ limited access to (and ability to interpret) public records.
  • Government accountability. Including the lack of government transparency, as well as the perceived shift of government resources away from governing towards communications/PR.
  • The (increasingly?) negative tone of news. Including whether / how this serves to undermine other democratic goals of civic engagement.

Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), we then broke into groups to brainstorm solutions. Ideas included:

  • Creating either a national hub or regional hubs of accountability journalism, making data and research available for easy customization by local reporters.
  • Creating a mobile, time-limited (3 year), highly-publicized team to help improve state media that would focus on specific states. (The benefit of it being time-limited and highly-publicized being that the public might feel a heightened responsibility to support the effort and focus attention on longer-run sustainability.)
  • Auditing—and creating a central database of—existing journalistic data resources, collaborations, players, etc., with a goal of helping to inform others about what is available and identifying the gaps.
  • Improving data standardization across states to provide reporters with, for example, standardized data on bills’ statuses, so that journalists have tools as good as the lobbyists.

But while the discussion of problems facing statehouse journalism was rich and the ideas generated interesting, none are silver bullets. Addressing the issues plaguing statehouse reporting will require time and effort from many actors across the news media. The question remains which, if any, of these ideas could be implemented, iterated, and scaled—and which might make a demonstrable difference.

This post originally appeared in Hewlett.org and has been republished with permission.

  • Lorenawyofile

    WyoFile has set the bar in Wyoming for state house coverage. When our fellow news outlets witnessed the prioritization we put on state house reporting, it increased their own coverage. we absolutely see the importance of state policy and believe that it is imperative for us to share what happens under the dome with our readers and others involved in policy making and implementation.