Governing the States With Nobody Watching

WaPo’s Reid Wilson draws attention today to a fretful phenomenon long in the works: the steady decline in media coverage of state governments:

Since 2003, the number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent, according to a new study published Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Less than one third of the 801 daily newspapers in the U.S. send a reporter — full-time or part-time — to state capitol buildings, Pew found, citing data from the Alliance of Audited Media.

Among all states, there is an average of one reporter covering state legislatures for every 373,777 people, Pew said. In California, the ratio of reporters to population is one per every 866,371 people….

Newspapers aren’t the only media outlets increasingly turning a blind eye to state capitals. Only 130 of the 918 local television stations in the country — just 14 percent — have a reporter, full time or part time, assigned to state politics. Just 124 reporters cover state houses for radio stations, only 68 of whom are full-time.

And these reporters aren’t typically the grizzled statehouse observers of yore:

Many state capital reporters are entry-level, with low starting salaries and bad benefit packages.

Wilson notes that many local news outlets now rely on AP for coverage of their own states. As a lot of you probably know, that’s a hit-or-miss proposition; some AP statehouse reporters are excellent; others not so much.

While Wilson focus on the most recent decline in media coverage of state government and politics, and attributes it to the fall of advertising revenues and the growth of the internet, it’s really been going on for a long time. During my salad days in state government in Georgia in the 1980s, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution virtually halted regular coverage of state government in favor of a Pulitzer-driven search for “scandals” (particularly among the low-hanging-fruit of the child welfare system), which was better than nothing but left a lot unexamined. Now that seems like the Age of Pericles. And don’t for a moment imagine that lobbyists and influence-peddlers aren’t aware they are largely operating without scrutiny.

There’s something to be said, I suppose, for full-fledged ideological assaults on the people of a state, like the one underway in North Carolina. At least they attract attention.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.