HomeAbout/Meet the Staff
SPJ 23 Website

Watchdogs dwindling at statehouses

By Billy O'Keefe

By Josephine Varnier
With budget cuts sparking job losses in journalism, more newspapers are collaborating on statehouse coverage.
Their creative efforts are aimed at softening the blow of some sobering numbers.
The number of full-time statehouse reporters has dropped more than 30 percent since 2003, according to the April/May 2009 American Journalism Review’s count of statehouse reporters. Sixty-one papers brought in extra help for legislative session coverage, which is 11 fewer than 2003.
More than 140 newspapers have cut back their coverage; 50 have stopped staff state government coverage all together.
With fewer full-time watchdogs holding state government officials accountable for their words and actions, a growing number of newspapers are exploring content-sharing agreements.
Madeline Novey, news managing editor of the Rocky Mountain Collegian at Colorado State University, says her paper is exploring collaborating with the Fort Collins Coloradoan and the Greeley Tribune to cover state government. All three lack state government beat reporters.
“They can’t focus their resources on that,” Novey said. “They’re focusing on getting out local-local stories and relying on AP like we do.”
Similar partnerships — some formal, some unofficial — are already in place elsewhere.
Jeannine Koranda is the only Wichita Eagle statehouse reporter, but routinely shares information with a reporter from The Kansas City Star to bolster their coverage.
In the past, both newspapers sent an extra reporter during legislative sessions, but The Star now sends no help. Fewer reporters in the statehouse means that “big issues get covered, just not smaller, quirky bills,” Koranda said.
In many places, opinion-laced blogs are beginning to fill that void, leaving readers to discern the difference between opinion and fact.
Although citizen bloggers aren’t a replacement for professional journalists, “somebody needs to be paying attention to little stories that cash-strapped newsrooms can’t get to … and bring stories to light that wouldn’t have been covered,” said Elissa Sonnenberg, University of Cincinnati journalism assistant director.
While the number of full-time statehouse reporters is declining, many newspapers continue to take their watchdog role seriously, former SPJ President Frank Gibson said.
“A lot of papers are giving up other things,” Gibson said, “but not that role.”