Who covers your state legislature? A disturbing report from Pew Research, if you care about democracy

Pew chart
Image links to Pew Research report.

It’s well-known that digital disruption has wrecked havoc on the nation’s newsrooms. What’s less documented is how that disruption has played out on specific types of news and in specific geographic areas.

Pew Research Center has analyzed number of full-time reporters covering state politics in every state. Using population as the relational variable, they’ve identified which states have a high reporter/population ratio and which have a low one.

And although absolute numbers are illustrative, these findings may be more disturbing:

  • 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…
  • About one-in-six (16%) of all the reporters in statehouses work for nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sites and nonprofit organizations…
  • Students account for 14% (223 in all) of the overall statehouse reporting corps…

And then there’s this, from The (London) Guardian last last year:

Conservative groups across the US are planning a co-ordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The proposals were co-ordinated by the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level. 
The documents contain 40 funding proposals
  from 34 states, providing a blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014. In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine , the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.

With fewer noses poking into the man-behind-the-curtain on these efforts — who knows how experience levels have been affected? — the Pew data should give you pause. Unless, maybe, you live in Vermont.

That’s because the best ratio belongs to teeny tiny Vermont, the second least-populous state (population ~625,000) in the country and among the smallest (45th in square miles). Yet it has the highest rate of full-time reporters per 500,000 residents. The median ratio is 1.3 reporters per 500,000 residents; Vermont’s ratio is 10.4.

States with smaller populations although not small geographically, relatively speaking, often have better ratios than more populous states. That could be because of scale: one reporter can share information with 1,000 people as easily as 1,000,000, especially in this age of digital information. The study defines a “statehouse reporter” as someone “physically assigned to the capitol building to cover the news there, from legislative activity to the governor’s office to individual state agencies.”

In absolute numbers, Texas (number 2 in population and geography) has the most full-time reporters (53). But when normalized by population, its ratio puts it below the median with 1.1 reporters per 500,000 population.

chart showing media organizations
Image links to report with a higher resolution image of this chart.

The shrinking newsroom

This report is the latest in a short series analyzing the nation’s newsrooms. According to a study conducted by the American Society of News Editors, “full-time newspaper newsroom staffing shrunk by 30% from 2003 through 2012 (the latest year for which data are available).” This report shows a comparable reduction — 35% — in statehouse reporters for the period 2003 and 2014.

Most state legislatures operate part-time, with only eight (CA, MA, MI, NJ, NY, OH, PA, WI) operating 11-12 months of the year. However, the regulatory machine works year-round.

There is real reason to worry about public interest watchdogs in an era of declining newspaper newsrooms: most of the on-the-ground reporters who cover state politics are employed by a newspaper.

Fully 55% of the full-time reporters working in state capitols are employed by either a newspaper or a wire service (Associated Press dominates but Bloomberg News and Reuters are present in some state capitols).

More than a quarter of those covering state issues work for “nonprofit and commercial digital news organizations, ideological outlets and government insider publications that can charge steep subscription fees.”

And with a logjam inside the Beltway, state legislatures are where the action is. According to Pew, “nearly half of the state legislatures (24) enacted more laws in 2012 alone than Congress did in 2011 and 2012 combined.”

A case study, of sorts

Advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle develop “model legislation” that they then push in state legislatures. For example, 31 states have either constitutional amendments (29) or legislation (3) banning same-sex marriage as of this writing. Some of those measures are being argued in court.

But how did we get here? Although anti-gay marriage legislation kicked off in Maryland in 1973, the constitutional amendment snowball began in Alaska and Hawaii in 1998.

State constitutional amendments appear on statewide ballots. So which organizations oppose same sex marriage?

And who has bankrolled those measures? If you can find an analysis, your Google-fu is better than mine.

This is an issue that began percolating in the states in 1973, years before Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

And we have 35% fewer full-time reporters on the state capitol beat today than in 2003. Imagine the drop from 1996. From 1973.

Add to that mix the massive consolidation in the news industry, one that limits voices literally (fewer employees covering news; mergers mean firing people for “synergy”) and that has limited the number voices in terms of ownership.

I don’t know the answer/solution.

For most “news” consumers, the politics of public policy (contrasted with the horse race politics of elections) ranks lower than sardines as an appealing portion of the average news diet.

Thus, there isn’t a revenue model that supports in-depth state house reporting.

Without the income from more lucrative sections of the paper (think ice cream, soda and cake – at least in dietary appeal) such as sports, fashion, comics and classifieds, how can newspapers fund these full-time reporters?


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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