The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The troubling new void in local journalism — and the nonprofits trying to fill it

Fewer and fewer reporters are covering the nation’s state governments. One organization is trying to reverse that trend.

The Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

No other reporter kept following the story of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against Tyson Foods, but Clark Kauffman did. The deputy editor of Iowa Capitol Dispatch dug deep into the legal filings last year and uncovered a startling revelation: Managers at one of the multinational corporation’s pork-processing plants had been accused of placing bets on how many of their workers would get sick with coronavirus.

The story made international headlines and triggered a public apology from the company, which fired those managers after launching its own internal investigation. But Kauffman’s boss said there was nothing “magic” in how he managed to uncover it.

“We’re just able to spend our time like that,” said editor Kathie Obradovich, “and every once in a while it pays off.”

Kauffman’s scoop is emblematic of the kind of dogged reporting he produces regularly for the Iowa outpost of States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit newsrooms covering state government across the country. These outlets keep close tabs on the state legislatures and regulatory agencies where decisions are being made that affect many aspects of daily life for citizens: taxes, environmental rules, health care policy, school funding, workers rights and much more.

With funding from foundations and a variety of donors, States Newsroom formed two years ago to attempt to fill a void in what many government watchdogs and civil-society experts believe is one of the biggest manifestations of the local journalism crisis: the dire shortage of reporters covering state government.

On Monday, States Newsroom will announce plans to nearly double its presence, from its current 25 states to about 40 over the next two and a half years. It will open its next five outlets in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky. It’s also launching “News from the States,” a new online clearinghouse to showcase all their affiliates’ reporting.

Each news bureau is run independently, usually by veteran journalists — Kauffman and Obradovich both previously worked for the Des Moines Register — with staffs of about four or five journalists. And each allows other news organizations to republish its work free.

“State government and politics and policy have the most impact on people’s lives and it’s covered the least,” said States Newsroom director and publisher Chris Fitzsimon. “That’s really why we exist.”

The number of newspaper reporters dedicated to covering statehouses has been declining for decades, dropping by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014 and outpacing overall newspaper job losses over that time, according to Pew Research Center survey. And that was before the more recent blows to the newspaper industry, with nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanishing between 2018 and early 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, even before the pandemic worsened their economic picture.

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Enterprising activists, interest groups, bloggers and trade publications have attempted to fill the gap by monitoring the machinations of lawmakers and regulatory agencies. Nonprofits have also increasingly stepped up, sometimes in collaboration with corporate media, such as the Associated Press’s partnership with Report For America, which partially funds salaries for reporters at local news organizations. ProPublica expanded its local reporting network to pay for journalists at seven organizations to focus squarely on state government.

Fitzsimon — who founded States Newsroom after running the North Carolina nonprofit NC Policy Watch — applauded these efforts while noting that many focus on single issues or blockbuster investigative pieces. “What we believe people need,” he said, “is day-to-day reporting to know how decisions are made and how they affect people.”

The nonprofit model is not immune to criticism, particularly about who pays the bills. States Newsroom does not accept corporate underwriting, which has been criticized as just another form of advertising. But some media watchdogs have challenged it for ties to ideological donors. States Newsroom has rebuffed those allegations, centered on its past relationship with the Hopewell Fund. The liberal group served as its incubator until States Newsroom secured its own nonprofit status in November 2019, after which the entities separated. States Newsroom said it never received funding from Hopewell.

The organization, which raised nearly $10 million in 2020, now lists on its website every donor who has contributed more than $500, which includes individuals, foundations, and entities such as the Google News fund and a major union of public employees. The foundation of Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who briefly entertained joining a bid to buy Tribune Publishing Company last year, offered a $1 million donation early in its history.

Their affiliates publish opinion pieces, much like newspapers’ editorial pages, that largely lean left. The news coverage is separate, Fitzsimon said, and editors at the individual outlets say they have total independence to run them as they see fit.

“We often ask people to judge us by our journalism and our journalists, who are widely respected,” said Fitzsimon.

Echo Menges, the editor of the only newspaper in Knox County, Mo., said it was the caliber of reporting talent at States Newsroom’s Missouri Independent and the quality of their work that has prompted her to use its stories again and again in her Edina Sentinel. Recently, it was a story on how a cold-weather rise of local covid-19 cases was increasingly pushing activities indoors.

“In our rural areas, it is very hard to find trained, educated professional journalists, so I think one of the major things they do for us here in the northeast region is cover issues that affect us,” Menges said. “We have not had this kind of opportunity to be able to bring investigative journalism, bring statehouse news.”

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Smaller newspapers have long relied on wire services such as the Associated Press to fill their pages with the kind of statehouse reporting that they just don’t have the personnel to produce themselves. But increasingly, newspapers like the Edina Sentinel can’t afford to subscribe to the AP, adding to the appeal of the free offerings of States Newsroom. Yet even better-established papers, like the Des Moines Register and the Omaha World Herald, have run the free stories as well.

Sharing her work with other papers is one reason Obradovich joined the Iowa Capitol Dispatch, after seeing the statehouse press corps shrink over the years. She said she has seen firsthand how many stories fall through the cracks, such as the doctor who got a medical license despite being on probation for being part of an opioid distribution scheme and regular reports on restaurant health compliance.

“Community newspapers are under the gun, they’re under stress and they’re trying to keep their doors open,” she said. The Dispatch, she hopes, can help provide them with “quality reporting that’s objective, that’s accurate and that they can count on from experienced reporters that they may not be able to hire themselves. And maybe that helps take off the pressure a little bit off of them.”

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