The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The precipitous decline of state political coverage

Correction: An earlier version of this story said AP had full-time reporters in all but one state capital. In fact, they have reporters in all 50 states.

On July 1, for the first time in three decades, Norma Love didn’t go to work. The longtime Associated Press reporter retired after covering the New Hampshire state legislature since 1985, an era spanning seven gubernatorial administrations, seven presidential elections and countless political shifts in a classic swing state.

Love is just one of a steady stream of reporters who have left state legislative bureaus in recent years. Tom Fahey, a longtime bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader, left in 2012 to take a job with the state Bankers Association. The Keene Sentinel, the Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily Democrat all used to maintain statehouse bureaus. Now, they only send reporters for special events.

In Richmond, Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis took a job with a public relations firm after being fired over a story during last year’s gubernatorial race. Michael Sluss, the longtime statehouse reporter for the Roanoke Times, took a position at the same firm. Christina Nuckols, another statehouse veteran who wrote for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Roanoke Times, took a position with the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. And Julian Walker, another former Virginian-Pilot reporter, joined a different public relations firm in June.

Those two states are part of a nationwide drop in statehouse coverage. 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.

There is a paradox in the reality of American politics: The more local an office, the more of an impact it has on any given person’s daily life. Yet the more local an election, the lower the voter interest. Presidential elections drive turnout. State legislators, who decide funding levels for local transportation projects or school districts and who have more influence on the average person’s life than the president of the United States, do not. Now, there is less coverage of those legislators than ever before.

More empty desks in the New Hampshire Capitol Building’s press room meant reporters couldn’t cover every hearing or every news conference, even if rival news outlets covered for each other. “There may be 1,000 bills or 1,200 bills filed, so you had to target the ones you could cover,” Love said. “People would notice we were not where we used to be. We just couldn’t be there.”

That, in turn, has given politicians, lobbyists and public relations professionals the opportunity to step into the vacuum. Whether via newsletters, YouTube, Facebook or other social media outlets, politicians are increasingly generating their own news, and interest groups are spinning their own stories.

“That led to a growth, in my mind, of more lobbyists and more public relations people controlling the news through social media,” Love said. “It’s just been a sad decline in coverage in terms of being the watchdog of government.”

The decline coincides with falling advertising revenue for newspapers challenged by the growing power of the Internet. The rapidly changing industry has meant cutbacks, more reliance on part-time reporters, young journalists working their first jobs for low pay, and even students: 14 percent of all statehouse reporters are still in school, the Pew survey found.

Pew based many of its numbers on American Journalism Review studies dating back to 1998. The most recent AJR survey, from 2009, found 355 newspaper staff reporters covering state capitals, down from 524 in 2003. In the six intervening years, the number of reporters covering capitals in 44 states declined, while just two — Rhode Island and Oregon — grew.

In 2012, one of the Oregonian’s capital bureau reporters, Michelle Cole, left to join a lobbying firm after 13 years covering the legislature.

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.

In place of their own full-time staffers, media outlets also rely more heavily on the Associated Press, and writers like Love, or other wire services. The AP has at least one full-time statehouse reporter in every state; overall, wire service reporters make up 9 percent of state capitol press corps. But even those numbers have shrunk: Brian Carovillano, AP’s managing editor for U.S. news, told Pew that his agency “got a little bit smaller after 2008.”

Non-traditional outlets have filled some of the void. Those outlets are generally online-only; some are nonprofits, while others, like Howey Politics Indiana, Capital New York and PolitickerNJ, focus on insider audiences of lobbyists and government executives.

Around the country, 33 of these non-traditional outlets advocate a specific ideological point of view. Almost half of those outlets are owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. Another Pew study found Franklin Center Web sites were four times more likely to present stories with a conservative theme than a liberal theme. Others, like NC Policy Watch in North Carolina, present the news from a liberal perspective.

Western states tend to have fewer reporters than Northeastern, Southern or Midwestern states, the report found. Nineteen states — Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming — have fewer than 10 full-time reporters covering their legislatures. Just two reporters are assigned to cover the South Dakota capital; only three cover goings-on in Dover, Del.

California and Texas maintain the most robust press corps; there are 43 full-time reporters in Sacramento, and 53 in Austin.

The budgetary pressures felt by the papers trickle down to reporters. Many state capital reporters are entry-level, with low starting salaries and bad benefit packages.

“The industry changed. We went through this really difficult time, where particularly newspapers are having a hard time with ad revenue, particularly during the recession,” Love said. “It’s not the kind of profession people feel secure in and feel like going into.”