But there is good news, too. Several new or expanding outlets are addressing some of political journalism’s long-standing shortcomings: insufficient coverage of state and local government and of people who aren’t White and upper-income; an over-prioritization of elections over policy; a failure to recognize that the courts are a central front in today’s political conflicts.
And this matters. I don’t care about the state of political journalism just because it’s my field. The coverage decisions and priorities of news outlets affect the behavior of elected officials and the lives of everyday citizens. Good political journalism is vital.
Here are seven outlets that are reimagining political journalism in smart ways:
The American Prospect
If you want to understand what’s happening inside the Biden administration and the broader Democratic Party, the Prospect is a must-read. The magazine focuses on policy, not elections. But it’s not boring or overly wonky. The Prospect smartly explains how major industries, electoral considerations, and particular politicians and strategists drive policy decisions.
The Prospect generally shares President Biden’s ideology, but the magazine isn’t just reflexively praising Democrats and bashing Republicans like MSNBC. It often delves into Republican strategy and fissures among Democrats.
“A lot of what we do is uncovering the structures of power that are just outside the spotlight. We’ll tell you how power works and what powerful people are wielding it, from Washington to the corporate boardroom,” said David Dayen, the Prospect’s executive editor.
Balls and Strikes
Until recently, many news outlets treated the judiciary, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, as a high-minded institution not caught up in the partisan battles dividing the rest of the country. But there has been a push to tell a different, more accurate story: The judiciary is partisan and political, too. And the Republican Party in particular has stacked the courts with appointees who carry out its policy goals.
Balls and Strikes, which is an arm of the progressive group Demand Justice, most embodies this style. One of the site’s stories last year criticized NPR legal reporter Nina Totenberg’s close ties with then-Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, arguing that a journalist is supposed to scrutinize those in power, not befriend them. Articles on the site have also shown the crucial role largely unknown conservative lawyers and activists play in pushing cases that result in right-wing rulings.
“Our coverage is premised on the reality that interpreting the law is an inherently political act with real-world consequences, and that a given outcome is not just or desirable or legitimate simply because a person wearing a robe managed to string together a few sentences about, ‘why the law compels it,’” said Jay Willis, the site’s editor in chief.
When there is a high-profile incident involving race or the police, the news media tends to descend on a given city for weeks, write a lot of stories and then move on. Not Bolts. The magazine recognizes that voting rights, gerrymandering, policing and other issues that often play out at the state and local level are increasingly at the center of American politics. A recent Bolts story not only explained how Atlanta police have arrested protesters who object to a massive police training facility being built there, but described similar actions being taken against activists across the country.
“There’s a large audience looking to delve into the local weeds of power and policy beyond where they live,” said Bolts founder and editor in chief Daniel Nichanian.
The Guardian US
The U.S. edition of the London-based Guardian is one of the few outlets that does these three things at once: covers up-to-minute news like the New York Times or The Post; openly acknowledges its left of center ideology; writes about politics without the “insider” approach (unnamed sources, an obsession with consultants and strategy) that makes so much political coverage hard to parse if you aren’t already an expert.
The results are great. A recent five-part series on Ron DeSantis described his policies as Florida’s Republican governor in detail, used blunt, non-equivocating language (stating that one of DeSantis’s goals is to “dilute Black political power”) and didn’t spend much time speculating about his poll numbers.
“We often describe our perspective as an outsider perspective or a global perspective. We’re not doing the latest inside scoop from the corridors of Congress. We’re looking at American politics with an eye to what matters to the rest of the world and the rest of the country,” said Guardian US editor Betsy Reed.
Hammer & Hope
This magazine was created by some of the activists and intellectuals who have been at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement. So Hammer & Hope takes it as a given that anti-Black discrimination still exists in America and concentrates on what should be done to address it.
For example, the magazine had tenant organizers in Kansas City, Mo., write a piece explaining their strategies to reduce evictions. In another article, leading BLM figures debated why the movement was not as successful as it hoped in getting policies on policing and other issues changed in the wake of the massive 2020 protests.
“We want to make a firmly practical difference by creating a space for discussing and circulating tactics and strategies around actual struggles,” said editor and co-founder Jen Parker.
Neither the grocer Kroger nor the restaurant chain Olive Garden was offering all of its employees paid sick leave during the early stages of the covid-19 pandemic. Many companies have broken their promises not to donate to Republican members of Congress who refused to certify the 2020 election results. Cameron Sexton, the GOP speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, purchased a house in Nashville through a trust, perhaps trying to obscure that he and his family may functionally live in Music City, not Sexton’s home district about two hours away.
Those are all stories that were extensively covered by other media outlets but were first broken by Popular Information. The site’s founder and editor, Judd Legum, was the research director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, in charge of digging up negative information about both Clinton and her opponents. Legum’s background has helped him carve out a unique role. He focuses on finding scandals, unlike most political writers. But he publishes regularly, unlike the investigative reporters at most large news organizations, who might only write a few times a year.
“If I identify a story that involves a lot of monotonous work to pursue effectively, that's a good story for Popular Information,” said Legum.
Local newspapers are shrinking, and most national media outlets mostly cover Congress and the president. That has left a huge and important void as both parties increasingly enact their policy agendas at the state level.
Enter States Newsroom. Over the past six years, the company has founded news outlets focused on state government in 34 states. They are usually quite small, only four to five staffers and a handful of contributing writers. But because so much is happening at the state level and there are so few reporters in most capitals, these operations are extremely valuable. I subscribe to the newsletter for the Kentucky Lantern and read it every day.
“In many states, we have more reporters in the capital year-round than any other news organization,” said Chris Fitzsimon, the director and publisher of States Newsroom.
I should emphasize that the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal and The Post remain the preeminent news organizations in America. Those six have huge numbers of journalists, consistently accurate coverage and try to reach people across geographic and ideological lines.
But political journalism is much less rigorous and well-staffed at the state and local levels, and those six big outlets also have their weaknesses. We need more political journalism, but we also need better political journalism. And amid all the bad news about the news, that better political journalism is emerging.