As traditional news sources cut back on statehouse reporters, other outlets seek to fill the gaps in coverage.
The Pew Research Journalism Project took a look at statehouse press corps across the country. State populations are generally predictive of the size of their statehouse press corps. At the time of the survey, Illinois had 22 full-time statehouse reporters. Texas had the most at 53. South Dakota had the fewest with two.
Newspapers employ the largest portion of journalists assigned to cover state government. But they have been cutting statehouse staff since the late 1990s. Television reporters make up the second-biggest share.
“I do think there’s been a loss in general across the country, and that’s very concerning to me,” Patrick Marley, who covers the Wisconsin Statehouse for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told Pew “We have scads of reporters in Washington covering every bit of news that Congress makes. State legislators have more effect on people’s daily lives. We need to have eyes on them, lots of eyes.”
With 15 reporters, The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit that publishes primarily online, has the largest statehouse bureau. One in six journalists based at state capitols work for “nontraditional” media, such as nonprofits and online-only news sources. Pew found that many such organizations have an ideological bent or market paid subscription content to “insiders” who have a stake in the decision made by state government.
Political communication staffers are bypassing journalists and posting online videos and information that resembles news coverage. “The legislative offices themselves are getting much more into the business of directly communicating with the public and circumventing the media,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. He called direct communication from public officials a “mixed blessing” because it provides the public with more info, but it often comes with a hefty dose of political spin.
Students are also playing a big role in statehouse coverage. One out of seven people working in a state capitol pressroom is a college student.
While reporting on state governments is in decline, state officials themselves seem to be doing more than their federal counterparts. A separate Pew study found that almost half of state governments enacted more laws in 2012 than Congress did in 2011 and 2012 combined. “Obviously we know that not a lot of activity is going on here at the federal level,” Jurkowitz said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of the big national public policy debates actually play out at the state level.”