I drove across the country recently — who flies these days? — and along my route I thought a lot about the local free press and whether it will survive.
The Four Horsemen of the Press Apocalypse are here: Big Tech, Corporate Predators, Public Indifference and Politics.
I write a lot about the first three horsemen. Big Tech uses monopolistic power to control advertising and steal news content. Corporate Predators buy up news organizations to gut them for profits. And Public Indifference ignores the peril to democracy as the local free press withers.
Then there is Politics and its army of politicians. Suffice to say, there are an awful lot of people in politics who don’t hold the free press in high regard these days. Their rhetorical assaults shape public perceptions of the press.
Which brings me to that cross-country drive. Whenever I travel somewhere near a state capital, I try to visit the Capitol building. I passed through 11 states and visited six state capitols. I’d already been to the capitols in three of the others.
State capitols are cathedrals of democracy. They’re usually architecturally beautiful and full of history. And they tell you something about what the people of a state think of their government. A well-kept or newly renovated capitol speaks to a state that values its democracy. A capitol with peeling paint, graffiti scratched into the marble and furniture piled up in hallways for lack of a better place to put it, that’s where democracy doesn’t get the respect it deserves. (I’m looking at you, Missouri.)
One thing I look for in each capitol is its press corps offices, the place dedicated to the reporters who spend uncounted hours making sure that the public knows what their elected officials are doing. Because reporters come from all over a state, most capitols provide some office space. A reporter from Spokane or Seattle can’t just run back to the main office from Olympia in a pinch.
The quality of those offices is a subtle indicator of what elected officials think of the press. It’s not a perfect measure, but it is a good hint. Do lawmakers treat reporters well and make sure they have good access or do they put them as far away as possible?
In Washington, reporters from a half dozen news outlets have pretty good offices and easy access to the Capitol. There are plans for an upgrade in a couple of years as part of Capitol renovations. That beats what a lot of states provide.
In Oregon, reporters are deep in the bowels of the building.
“We’re in a basement and probably at dire risk if an earthquake strikes, which is less than ideal,” said Dirk VanderHart a politics reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He added, though, that lawmakers for the most part are easy to find and interview.
Idaho’s Capitol reporters also are in a basement, but that’s where a lot of lawmakers have their offices, too, so it’s not so bad, according to Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Capitol Correspondents Association, who has covered state politics for decades.
“The current Capitol press room is a big upgrade from the space we used to have before the 2008-09 remodel of the state Capitol, when the press space was an unventilated basement space directly under the rotunda that was used as storage for the rest of the year,” she said.
At the Wyoming Capitol, reporters are tucked into a distant nook in the basement, but at least it’s a nice nook, the product of a recently completed renovation, said Tom Coulter, state government reporter for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne.
Then there are states like Missouri and Indiana, where reporters are shunted to far-flung spaces. In Missouri, reporters are way off in the attic. In Indiana, they’re down by the custodial and maintenance offices in the basement. It’s as if lawmakers want to run into reporters as little as possible in the halls.
When a state marginalizes its press corps, either willfully or through indifference, it sends a message that the press doesn’t matter. That’s dangerous in a democracy that has always relied on the free press to keep the public informed.
By the same token, a state that makes sure its Capitol reporters have the space they need to get their job done is a state that doesn’t want to keep its residents in the dark.