A new Pew Research report found more “statehouse reporters” in 2022 than 2014, suggesting the journalism crisis is easing.
Actually, it’s worse, leaving voters with less coverage of their states, despite the arrival of some promising online news ventures.
The number of full-timer statehouse reporters continues to decline, Pew found.
Some of the 11% increase came from new outlets, which is great. But much of it is due to newsrooms using pinch hitters to cover what should be a core beat.
If a baseball team cut its pitcher and had other players take turns on the mound, it would technically have more pitchers. But not really.
The situation is especially bad in Washington state, the report notes. This is physically represented by two now empty press houses on the Capitol campus, awaiting demolition this year.
Whether statehouse reporters are increasing depends on how you count them.
For its latest tally, Pew included both full-time and part-time statehouse reporters.
Many of the part-timers “cover other topic areas and are dispatched to cover the capitol when there’s a need,” the report said.
I don’t want to bash Pew, which does gold-standard research on the journalism industry that’s widely cited.
But I think its statehouse report captured anomalies and trends that are worsening coverage of state governments and leaving the public less informed.
There are bright spots. Pew highlighted the rise of nonprofit news ventures covering state government.
It found 59 nonprofits, with at least one statehouse reporter, that emerged since the 2014 study.
Since its last such report in 2014, the number of full-time state reporters at nonprofits grew from 48 to 187.
A few outlets may account for much of that increase. One is States Newsroom, a North Carolina nonprofit that now employs more than 132 people with small capitol bureaus in 26 states.
Another is CalMatters, a California news nonprofit founded in 2015 that now employs more than 50 people.
Newspapers, which still provide most statehouse coverage, continue to decline. Full-time statehouse reporters employed at newspapers fell to 245 this year, down from 374 in 2014.
Among a group of 194 papers that Pew’s been tracking since 2003, the number of statehouse reporters declined 44%, Katerina Eva Matsa, Pew associate director and a lead author of the study, told me.
That’s “pretty much on par” with overall declines in the industry over that period, she said.
Pew used to do a similar study with American Journalism Review, a magazine that failed in 2015. In 2003 it found 524 newspaper reporters covering statehouses full-time.
AJR’s 2009 story reported that more than 140 papers cut back on coverage since 2003 “and more than 50 stopped providing staff coverage of state government altogether.”
The latest study acknowledges that it included the period when state governments were still conducting business online because of the pandemic.
That made it easier for reporters to view meetings without traveling to capitols. It also diminished reporting, by cutting access to sources and information shared beyond the cameras.
Another anomaly is that pandemic coverage had reporters across beats handling stories that often involved state government.
I think the “increase” reflects desperation moves. Decimated newsrooms are making fewer reporters cover many more things. That’s a recipe for less and worse coverage of important beats and burnout.
A recent book measured the dwindling output of local political and government stories at newspapers, broadcasters and online outlets, and tied it to declining civic engagement. The authors of “News Hole,” political science professors Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless, found “a profound gutting of the local information environment since the 1990s.”
They focused on municipal coverage. It’s a safe guess that declines in state coverage are equal or worse.
Hayes told me they separately counted story references to “governor,” to get at least a partial view of state coverage. They found a 45% decline in such stories between 2003 and 2017. About half that decline, 21%, was between 2014 and 2017 as the local newspaper crisis worsened.
“I do think it’s good news that some nonprofits are helping to stanch the bleeding in statehouses,” he said via email. “But the decline in full-time reporters suggests that the long-term downward trend is continuing, and it almost surely means that some important stories won’t get covered.”
More than half of states saw increases in statehouse reporters since 2014, Pew found. In Nebraska, the largest gainer, students account for 40 of 51 additions.
In Washington, broadly defined statehouse reporters fell from 30 to 17.
The Capitol press corps in Olympia has six full-time reporters. The Associated Press and The Seattle Times each have one.
They moved last year into a cluster of small offices in the Capitol building, where there’s no room to restore 2014 staff levels.
The declines affect how officials conduct business, Tim Sheldon, a retiring Mason County Democrat and the state’s longest serving legislator, told me.
“I think it changes things, it changes things a lot, and not for the good, not for the public benefit,” he said.
More than sporadic statehouse coverage is needed, said Essex Porter, who recently retired as KIRO 7’s political reporter.
“It’s difficult if you’re not a steady presence,” he said. “I wouldn’t say you need to be omnipresent, but you need to be a steady presence during the legislative session especially.”
Porter tried to spend at least three days a week in Olympia during sessions. You become a familiar face and can wave over legislators during breaks to explain things, he said.
“What news outlets need to be encouraged to do is to remember that core function, that one of the things we need with statehouse coverage is to continue accountability coverage,” he said.
Porter is absolutely right.
More reporters may be writing state stories, and new outlets are welcome. But fewer full-timers overall, and peanut-buttering of state coverage by gutted newsrooms, doesn’t do it justice or fulfill the mission.