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."
Even that flow is more constricted. "There are issues that just don't get covered anymore," says Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. "What you want is an informed and engaged population, but with less manpower and less space, there just isn't the opportunity to talk about many topics that lie beneath the marquee issues."
At many papers, including The Post -- which has maintained its longtime staffing of two-person bureaus in each capital, with a third reporter added when the legislatures are in session -- much state news now appears only online. Editors say that's a way to serve the public with targeted reports that aren't subject to space limitations. "Because of the Web, we've actually increased the number of words that we write about state government and politics," says Robert McCartney, The Post's assistant managing editor for metro news. Reporters who may find it harder to get stories into the paper write in more detail, often several times a day, for the Virginia Politics and Maryland Moment blogs.
Critics say that shift serves only the elite that's intently interested in state news, not the broader audience. "The insiders are still getting a full report on the blogs, but the rest of us see only what we want to see instead of the news we need to see," says Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia and a former politics reporter for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville.
Many bloggers say that far from being able to replace professional reporters, they actually suffer from the diminished flow of state news. "What I can't offer on my blogs is the relationships, the institutional memory, the why, the history that reporters who know the capital can bring to their stories," says Waldo Jaquith, who blogs on Virginia politics and runs a site, RichmondSunlight.com, that tracks every bill. "Newspapers can describe the candidates for governor in a more balanced, deeper way because you don't have a dog in the race. We bloggers do."
A combination of media revolution and economic collapse is dismantling our news infrastructure, especially at the state and local levels. "Someday, people will wake up to the depletion of the press corps," Gibson says. "I don't know if the result will be corruption or demagoguery, but the interests of the people are not being represented anymore."
But as long as people buy property, look for jobs, send kids to school and pay taxes, they will need credible information about state government. Something will rise to fill the news vacuum, someday. In the meantime, the lobbyists are getting the news they need. The voters, not so much.