WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Reporters sent to cover political action in U.S. statehouses across the country have dropped dramatically in the past decade, with the number of full-time newspaper reporters declining by 35 percent since 2003.
A new Pew Research study finds that only about half of the 1,592 journalists assigned to cover government and public policy actions were assigned there full-time. The average of 15 full-time reporters per state is actually quite skewed depending on location – Texas has the most with 53 full-time reporters, while there are only two in South Dakota.
The remaining 851 statehouse reporters are either part-time, college students or simply covering local political action on a short-term basis. Students account for 14 percent (223 in all) of overall statehouse reporting corps; many of whom are only part-time and there on a short, interim basis.
Across all states, there is an average of one reporter covering state legislatures for every 373,777 people. In California alone, the ratio of reporters to population is one per every 866,371 people, according to the Pew data.
Newspapers analyzed between 2003 and 2014 lost a total of 164 full-time statehouse reporters, a 35 percent decline, much of which was directly related to reductions in overall newspaper staffing and a major move to online news. The decline of statehouse reporters paced a slightly higher rate of decline than cuts to overall newsroom staffs, which the American Society of News Editors places at 30 percent through 2012.
Less than one-third of U.S. newspapers now assign any kind of reporter – full or part-time – to statehouses. The Alliance for Audited Media finds that only 30 percent of the 801 daily papers it monitors send a staffer to the statehouse for any period of time at all.
In Massachusetts, only 6 percent of the state’s newspapers have any reporting presence at the statehouse – the lowest percentage of newspaper representation in the country.
But as newspapers have withdrawn statehouse reporters, a series of changes have been made that arguably distance the public from the flow of information regarding the actions of their state officials.
The reduction in local political coverage has caused many state officials to create “their own news feeds for public television, broadcast outlets or the Internet,” according to Pew. “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.”
“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.”
And it’s not just newspapers that have faded from covering statehouse politics.
Fully 86 percent of local TV news stations don’t assign even a single reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse. And wire services assign a total of 139 staffers to statehouses, or about 9 percent of all reporters at capitol buildings.
“I think you’re seeing fewer stories,” Gene Rose, the longtime former communications director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Pew. “The public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”