America’s Shifting Statehouse Press

July 15, 2014

Within America’s 50 state capitol buildings, 1,592 journalists inform the public about the actions and issues of state government, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.

Of those statehouse reporters, nearly half (741) are assigned there full time. While that averages out to 15 full-time reporters per state, the actual number varies widely—from a high of 53 in Texas to just two in South Dakota. The remaining 851 statehouse reporters cover the beat less than full time.

In this study, statehouse reporters are defined as those physically assigned to the capitol building to cover the news there, from legislative activity to the governor’s office to individual state agencies.

Newspaper reporters constitute the largest segment of both the total statehouse news corps (38 percent) and the full-time group (43 percent).  But the data indicate that their full-time numbers have fallen considerably in recent years, raising concerns about the depth and quality of news coverage about state government.

Between 1998 and 2009, American Journalism Review conducted five tallies of newspaper reporters assigned to the statehouse full time. Each tally since 1998 showed decline. The most precipitous drop occurred between 2003 and 2009, coinciding with large reductions in overall newspaper staffing prompted by the recession and major changes in the news industry.  To gauge the loss of reporters through 2014, Pew Research went back to the 2003 AJR list and examined statehouse staffing levels at newspapers that were accounted for in the last two AJR tallies—2003 and 2009 and in our 2014 accounting.1 Those papers lost a total of 164 full-time statehouse reporters—a decline of 35 percent—between 2003 and 2014. That percentage is slightly higher than the decline in newspaper newsroom staffing overall. According to the American Society of News Editors, full-time newspaper newsroom staffing shrunk by 30 percent from 2003 through 2012 (the latest year for which data are available).

As newspapers have withdrawn reporters from statehouses, others have attempted to fill the gap. For-profit and nonprofit digital news organizations, ideological outlets and high-priced publications aimed at insiders have popped up all over the country, often staffed by veteran reporters with experience covering state government. These nontraditional outlets employ 126 full-time statehouse reporters (17 percent of all full-time reporters). But that does not make up for the 164 newspaper statehouse jobs lost since 2003.

The cutbacks have led to other changes as well. State officials themselves have attempted to fill what they say is a reduction in coverage by producing their own news feeds for public television, broadcast outlets or the Internet. Newspapers and other media have tried to compensate for the changes by hiring students and increasing collaboration among outlets. It is not uncommon these days for former competitors to share reporters or stories, a trend that would have been unheard of in years past.

To gather as complete of an accounting as possible of the nation’s statehouse reporting pool, Pew Research spent months reaching out to editors and reporters, legislative and gubernatorial press secretaries and other experts on state governme­nt. This report puts a first-ever number on statehouse reporters not just from newspapers, but from all media sectors. It details how they break down by state and media sector and looks at how those numbers relate to state demographics and legislative activity. For this report, the key requirement was that a statehouse reporter physically work in the state capitol building—whether full-time or less than full time.

Story continued at the Pew Research Center. Click here to read the rest of the story.

Topic Tags: County Connections

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