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Joyce Terhaar: Capitol coverage demonstrates commitment

Gov. Gray Davis was famously ascetic and committed the sin of being boring – and then the energy crisis hit, complete with rolling brownouts across the state. Californians brought celebrity sex appeal to the Capitol when they ousted Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor in 2003.

Schwarzenegger strode into Sacramento with his alligator boots and cigars and, far more notably, media attention from around the world. The attention was so novel it became fodder for news reports: Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. Austrian television carried his inauguration live. Camera crews crowded the Capitol. Broadcast journalists from Europe and Asia and South America wanted interviews.

Compare that media commotion to today’s coverage of politics and state policy out of Sacramento. Yes, Arnold is gone. But it’s not just an issue of a worldwide celebrity making his mark in politics and leaving. Even before Schwarzenegger’s term ended, many journalists had packed up and gone home. Covering a statehouse, as it turns out, is hard work, and it takes a financial commitment from media companies.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a census of statehouse journalists across the country that shows far fewer companies are making that commitment. It was the first count of statehouse journalists since a 2009 tally by the American Journalism Review. (AJR published five tallies between 1998 and 2009.) Over time there’s been a sharp decline in journalists assigned to what is a key role for our democracy – keeping an eye on the officials who make decisions that affect our lives.

Newspaper reporters assigned to cover state capitols have dropped by more than a third in the last 11 years, yet still account for 38 percent of statehouse reporters, Pew reported. Television stations employ less than half as many, at 17 percent. Pew found that 86 percent of local TV news stations across the country do not assign even one reporter – full time or part time – to cover the statehouse. Gone are the cameras of the Schwarzenegger days.

Nonprofits, ideological news organizations and government officials themselves have stepped in, providing 16 percent of staffing from U.S. statehouses. Some, like The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit with the largest statehouse bureau in the country at 15 full-time journalists, bring journalism values and skills to their reporting. Others offer spin or political views that further this country’s political divide. An influential voice in California, for instance, comes from Republican operative Jon Fleischman’s FlashReport.

California still fares well by one measure. The 81 journalists who report from the Sacramento Capitol (43 full time) comprise the second-biggest statehouse press corps in the country, behind only Texas.

Those are the numbers. What does it mean?

In California, more news operations rely on a few key players – The Bee, the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press – for reporting from the Capitol. Competitive reporters tend to dig up new facts for the public, or find a new angle to a story. With fewer reporters, we see less of that.

Yet Dan Walters, The Bee’s political columnist who has almost 54 years in the business, offers valuable historical context.

Walters covered the Capitol during Jerry Brown’s first tenure as governor. He worked for The Sacramento Union, competing against a Bee Capitol Bureau that was smaller than today’s.

“Forty years ago most of the coverage was, I would call it, of two kinds: either bill coverage or campaign politics. There was very little, if any, investigative work and there was not much big-picture, issue-type stuff; it was more chasing bills,” Walters recalled.

Walters pointed to a couple of significant changes that make it more likely today’s coverage will protect the public interest. The first is technological. It took significant reporting effort decades ago to just keep track of a piece of legislation, the iterations of it and the impact. Reporters had to track down paper copies of the bill and its analysis and then any changes to that bill. Today, that information is online and journalists can write about legislation pretty efficiently, saving considerable time for other work.

The second big change is cultural. Until the early 1970s, reporters had office space in the Capitol and easier access to politicians and officials. “It was extremely cozy,” Walters said. Today, he said, it’s almost adversarial.

“Stories are written today in The Bee that could have been written 40 years ago and simply weren’t. It just wasn’t done,” he said. “It was self-censorship, for lack of a better phrase.”

Walters argued that such change results in better investigative reporting. And while he agreed that the Sacramento press corps has lost capacity in the last decade, he points to coverage such as Charles Piller’s reporting of serious construction problems with the Bay Bridge as important journalism that serves the public.

Covering state government – the politics and the policy – is a core part of The Bee’s mission. We’ve protected our Capitol Bureau staffing as we’ve cut back, losing only one reporter since the AJR 2009 census. Even that loss is offset by reporting out of the main Bee newsroom such as the Bay Bridge investigation and the investigation two years ago by Matt Weiser that revealed the state parks department was hiding money even as it was closing parks and asking the public to contribute funds to keep other parks open.

According to Pew, a majority of the public says this kind of watchdog reporting is valuable. Pew reported last year that 68 percent said, “press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things that should not be done,” a 10 percentage-point increase from two years earlier.

We think this watchdog role is one of the most important things we do, to protect the public by making sure politicians and public officials are serving your interests, not theirs.