Bloggers Can't Fill the Gap Left by a Shrinking Press Corps

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Packs of lobbyists fill two rooms outside the House and Senate chambers in Richmond every afternoon, watching the proceedings on big video screens, zapping legislators with e-mails the instant the lobbyists sense that one of their bills might be in trouble. The interest groups that hire lobbyists can rest easy; they've got the legislature covered.

Down the hall, the people's representatives have a hangout of their own, the press room. But there, nearly half the desks are empty. Reporters have been called home, reassigned, bought out, laid off. Only one TV station in Virginia still has a reporter at the capital. Many newspapers have decided to cover the capital by phone, if at all.

"Just look around -- it's dismal," says Bob Lewis, the Associated Press's veteran Richmond correspondent. A decade ago, he had twice as many colleagues covering state government. "And it's not just the bodies that are gone -- it's the institutional memory and knowledge."

Warren Fiske of the Virginian-Pilot, who has covered Richmond for 22 years, is being required to take a week off as part of his newspaper's cost-cutting furlough of all reporters. Michael Sluss from the Roanoke Times had to miss a day last week because of his paper's furlough. "I've never even taken a sick day in my nine years here," he says.

A similar emptying is evident in Annapolis, where the number of reporters covering Maryland's legislature has "declined by a good half in the last two years," says Tom Stuckey, who covered the State House for 42 years before retiring from the Associated Press in 2007.

Across the nation, it's not just that fewer reporters are covering state government; newspapers and TV stations are also devoting far less space and time to that news.

Does that mean citizens are less well-informed? Do blogs and other new media fill in where old media are cutting back? Is it really a loss if reporters cover fewer legislative debates?

"We used to sit here and it was a typing contest," Lewis says. "A lot of those process stories had a very small audience."

"When we had four people here for AP, we covered every floor debate, every vote," Stuckey says. "I'm not sure much quality was lost when we cut back to two people. We focused more on what it all means than on the daily politics."

In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No's won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone's property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people's lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.

"The smaller the press corps gets, the more you see personality stories rather than pieces about what is at stake for people," says Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. "Smoking in restaurants is always going to get covered, but now, when we make big changes in mental health or foster care, nobody covers it. That has a real impact: It would be hard for campaigns to get even more superficial, but they might."

"Time is much more precious now," Fiske says. The Virginian-Pilot has gone from a five-person capital bureau a decade ago to two full-time reporters, with one more during the session. "When we had the larger bureaus, you could do the good investigative piece. Most sessions, somebody would find someone doing something wrong. Now, we can only really cover the flow of legislation."

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