Statehouse Exodus: AJR's Latest Survey of the Nation's State Capitols Finds a Dramatic Decrease in the Number of Newspaper Reporters Covering State Government Full Time. A Handful of Digital News Outlets Are Springing Up to Fill the Breach. When Will These Efforts Be Enough to Compensate for the Loss of the Newspaper Watchdogs?

Article excerpt

When Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned in January to lead President Barack Obama's Department of Homeland Security, there was dramatic upheaval at the state Capitol.

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A Democrat who stood in opposition to a Republican House and Senate, Napolitano was replaced by Republican Jan Brewer, triggering turnover in state government and a shift in priorities--right in the midst of an estimated $3 billion budget shortfall.

But as the story grew, the Capitol press corps that should have been flooding the zone was evaporating instead. Arizona newspapers sent just four full-time reporters to the Capitol. Three of them worked for Phoenix's Arizona Republic, which recently cut a fourth position. Tucson's Arizona Daily Star sent one reporter. As suburban Phoenix's East Valley Tribune slashed the size of its newsroom by half, it eliminated both of its state government reporter slots.

Enter the Arizona Guardian.

In January, after the Tribune laid off editor Patti Epler and reporters Paul Giblin, Mary K. Reinhart and Dennis Welch, they launched their own digital news outlet to cover state government, boosting the ranks of full-time statehouse reporters by four during the state's topsy-turvy, five-month legislative session.

The state's Capitol press corps "has gotten a bit of a shot in the arm with the Guardian in the mix," says Matt Bunk, managing editor of the Capitol Times, a weekly that covers state government for Arizona politicos. "More flashlights keep it brighter in the halls of the Legislature, if you follow the metaphor, so it's cool to have some competition down here, even if a great deal of it is now publishing solely on the Web."

The diminished newspaper coverage of the Arizona state-house, along with the creative attempt to bridge the gap, reflects the condition of state capitol coverage across the country. This winter, AJR conducted its fifth census of newspaper reporters who cover state government, its first since 2003, and found a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols.

The tally found only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation's state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago. It discovered that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago. The number of full-time reporters remained the same in four states and increased modestly in two.

In New Jersey, seven of nine newspapers have cut back. In 2003, the statehouse had 35 full-time reporters. That number fell by more than half, to 15. Newark's Star-Ledger and Bergen County's Record had 19 statehouse watchdogs between them. Now that number is nine, and they are combining their bureaus.

In California, eight of 15 newspapers have cut back on Capitol coverage. The state, which has one of the nation's worst budget crises, had 40 full-time newspaper reporters at the statehouse in 2003. That number has fallen to 29.

Georgia, which had 14 full-time reporters six years ago, has only five. The number in Texas fell from 28 to 18.

The Associated Press has a robust presence at many capitols, although it, too, has cut back at some. "We view state house coverage as essential and are acutely aware of our increasing responsibility at state houses as others are forced by hard times to reduce their presence," AP Managing Editor Michael Oreskes wrote in an e-mail. "We have about 85 fulltime state house reporters and expand this significantly during legislative sessions. We have added more people this year than in past years for the reasons I described."

Some papers use independent services that have sprung up, such as Capitol Media Services in Arizona or the News Service Florida that veteran AP reporter David Royse created last year.

Most states also have niche publications geared toward political insiders, such as Arizona's Capitol Times and Illinois' Capitol Fax. …