There was a time when our sad small town newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, was once a great small town newspaper — back in the days before it was purchased by Lee Enterprises.
At one time, so long ago I cannot remember now, the Star had a Washington, D.C. based reporter. It had a state capitol based reporter until just a few years ago. The last one was douchebag Danny Scarpinato who got paid to write GOP press releases disguised as political reporting for the Star. After a brief stint at The Yellow Sheet Report (what were they thinking?) he eventually wound up at the RNCC where he now specializes in losing congressional campaigns.
State capitol reporting in the Star is either from the AP or from Howard Fisher.
Howard Fischer, a former Star employee, started his own Capitol Media Services years ago. For most small market newspapers in Arizona, Howie is the only source of state capitol reporting — he has a near monopoly, which gives Howie an outsized influence over how political news is perceived by Arizonans. It is not good that one man possesses this much control over the news.
The Arizona Republic still maintains a Washington, D.C. based reporter, and of course, has state capitol reporters because it is conveniently located in the capitol city.
The Arizona Capitol Times, a subscription service by capitol lobbyists for capitol lobbyists, and their reporting frequently reflects this bias, nevertheless does good reporting on the state capitol.
So who is watching the reprobates and ne’er-do-wells of the Arizona legislature and other government officials in Arizona? Largely Howard Fischer and a handful of reporters from the Arizona Republic and Arizona Capitol Times, and the occasional Phoenix T.V. news reporter (Brahm Resnik is exeptional).
A Pew study this week demonstrates the dramatic decline in state capitol reporting. Reid Wilson at the Washington Post reports, The precipitous decline of state political 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.
Among all states, there is an average of one reporter covering state legislatures for every 373,777 people, Pew said. In California, the ratio of reporters to population is one per every 866,371 people.
There is a 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. Presidential elections drive turnout. State legislators, who decide funding levels for local transportation projects or school districts and who have more influence on the average person’s life than the president of the United States, do not. Now, there is less coverage of those legislators than ever before.
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That, in turn, has given politicians, lobbyists and public relations professionals the opportunity to step into the vacuum. Whether via newsletters, YouTube, Facebook or other social media outlets, politicians are increasingly generating their own news, and interest groups are spinning their own stories.
“That led to a growth, in my mind, of more lobbyists and more public relations people controlling the news through social media,” Love said. “It’s just been a sad decline in coverage in terms of being the watchdog of government.”
The decline coincides with falling advertising revenue for newspapers challenged by the growing power of the Internet. The rapidly changing industry has meant cutbacks, more reliance on part-time reporters, young journalists working their first jobs for low pay, and even students: 14 percent of all statehouse reporters are still in school, the Pew survey found.
Pew based many of its numbers on American Journalism Review studies dating back to 1998. The most recent AJR survey, from 2009, found 355 newspaper staff reporters covering state capitals, down from 524 in 2003. In the six intervening years, the number of reporters covering capitals in 44 states declined, while just two — Rhode Island and Oregon — grew.
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Newspapers aren’t the only media outlets increasingly turning a blind eye to state capitals. Only 130 of the 918 local television stations in the country — just 14 percent — have a reporter, full time or part time, assigned to state politics. Just 124 reporters cover state houses for radio stations, only 68 of whom are full-time.
In place of their own full-time staffers, media outlets also rely more heavily on the Associated Press or other wire services. The AP has at least one full-time statehouse reporter in every state; overall, wire service reporters make up 9 percent of state capitol press corps. But even those numbers have shrunk: Brian Carovillano, AP’s managing editor for U.S. news, told Pew that his agency “got a little bit smaller after 2008.”
Non-traditional outlets have filled some of the void. . . . Around the country, 33 of these non-traditional outlets advocate a specific ideological point of view. Almost half of those outlets are owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity – SourceWatch, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. [“For the most part, the people in charge of these would-be watchdog operations are political hacks out to subvert journalism in their quest to grab and keep power using whatever means they have to do so. . . . At the forefront of an effort to blur the distinction between statehouse reporting and political advocacy is the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity,” Gibbons wrote in the Nieman Reports publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.] Another Pew study found Franklin Center Web sites were four times more likely to present stories with a conservative theme than a liberal theme. Others, like NC Policy Watch in North Carolina, present the news from a liberal perspective.
Western states tend to have fewer reporters than Northeastern, Southern or Midwestern states, the report found. [Pew says Arizona has 13 full-time state capitol reporters.]
California and Texas maintain the most robust press corps; there are 43 full-time reporters in Sacramento, and 53 in Austin.
The budgetary pressures felt by the papers trickle down to reporters. Many state capital reporters are entry-level, with low starting salaries and bad benefit packages.
“The industry changed. We went through this really difficult time, where particularly newspapers are having a hard time with ad revenue, particularly during the recession,” Love said. “It’s not the kind of profession people feel secure in and feel like going into.”
This is a sad irony: we supposedly live in the “information age,” yet because traditional news outlets no longer do news gathering, that information comes from fewer and fewer experienced reporters, and may come from propaganda shops like the Franklin Center, or lobbyists and PR firms.