MEDIA ROUNDUP: State budget coverage a victim of reporter deficits

Fewer reporters than ever are covering state-government stories, but with the right timing and a human face on the story, the state capital can even create national attention.

Fewer reporters than ever are covering state-government stories, but with the right timing and a human face on the story, the state capital can even create national attention.

Is the media unprepared to cover what could be one of the biggest issues facing the average American in the next decade? This story is not taking place in Washington, DC, New York, or Los Angeles, but rather the nation's 50 state capitals, where governors and state legislators are grappling with massive budget shortfalls that could collectively top $68 billion next year. How each of these states decides what services to cut and how to allocate the funds that remain will impact everything from schools to roads to public safety to economic development. However, the public knows less about these debates than ever before, as many newspapers, radio outlets, and especially television stations have dramatically scaled back their reporting on state government. Last year, a survey in the American Journalism Review (AJR) found that there were only 510 full-time state-government reporters, not counting the wire services. Compare that with the 3,092 credentialed reporters at the recent Super Bowl. "It is the lowest number we have seen, and probably the lowest in at least the last quarter century," notes the 2002 AJR article based on the survey. "It comes almost entirely as a consequence of newsroom budget cuts by companies seeking to bolster their shrinking profit margins during an economic downturn." These media cuts are coming despite cities such as Albany, NY, Sacramento, CA, Austin, TX, Tallahassee, FL, and other capital cities emerging as major power centers as the federal government pushes both money and decision making down to the state level. For example, the budget of California has grown from a relatively modest $5 billion in the early 1970s to more than $100 billion annually today. "There is mega-money that flows through this capital," says Steven Mallory, president and news director of Sacramento-based California Capitol News television service. State government as stepping stone The criticism of state-government reporting isn't just that the raw number of journalists is down. Over the past few decades, the stature of the state-government beat has also declined, with many reporters now viewing it more as a stepping stone to a better assignment. "There has been a reduction in the experience level of state-government reporters," says David Preston, partner with Providence, RI-based Trion Communications. "What ends up being sacrificed is institutional knowledge." "There does seem to be a lot of turnover in state-government reporting," confirms Steve Swatt, senior counselor with Porter Novelli's Sacramento office. The consolidation among smaller daily and weekly newspapers has also taken its toll. "The big change is that there are fewer bureaus," says Robert Sommer, EVP of The MWW Group. "Where as there used to be maybe six different papers with reporters, now they've all been absorbed by larger chains, so you have only one or two." But the change in print coverage is nothing compared to what's happened to television news. "What's really been upsetting to me is the gradual pull-out of television from state capitals," says Swatt, himself a former TV journalist in Sacramento. "Ironically, at a time when state government is such a large part of every resident's life, TV is now covering it less and less." Swatt says it is possible to attract the occasional TV truck to the state capital, but cautions, "You have to remember that local television news is no longer in the news-gathering business, but the audience-gathering business. So if you're representing a client on a state issue and you want TV, you have to give them stories that are very simple, and at the same time, very, very interesting." Pitching around legislative sessions When pitching the few state-capital reporters that remain, it's important to remember that timing is everything. If you want their undivided attention, it's better to reach out to statehouse journalists either before or after the legislature meets. "Once the legislature begins, you become a slave to the session," observes Holly Heyser, state-government editor at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press in Minnesota, and also current president of the Association of Capital Reporters and Editors, which consists of state-government reporters from around the country. Despite occasionally getting bogged down amid the flurry of bills introduced each session, Heyser says that state-government reporters are trying to do more trend stories, as well as get away from the statehouse to gather background for the legislative battles. Her advice to PR people is to help in that process: "Give me a real human example so I can put a face on the story." At the statehouse, PR firms tend to focus far more on government affairs than media outreach, although as Sommer points out, "it's not truly government affairs. It includes some media relations, traditional lobbying, coalition building, advertising, grassroots efforts - lots of different approaches." But even when dealing strictly with media relations, state-level PR requires a different approach. "State-capital reporters receive hundreds of releases each day, so they don't really do much good," says Swatt. "So what we try to do is set up background briefings on the issues well before they get debated by the legislature." Mike Paul, president of New York-based MGP & Associates PR, adds that even in this era of regular turnover on the statehouse beat, "You have to develop personal relationships with these reporters, or they aren't going to respond to you." For PR firms representing companies or organizations looking to make a national impact, a focus on state government may seem like small potatoes. But, Sommer says, "You can use media relations to take a state issue and have it resonate nationally." For example, much of the current efforts for reforming the laws governing malpractice insurance for doctors is occurring in Charleston, WV and Trenton, NJ - not Washington, DC. "There are a lot of laws and rule changes that companies can't get through Congress, but can get through state legislatures," Sommer says. "So the battles can be as peaked as they are in Washington." The added bonus is that getting the national press interested in state issues often leads to more local coverage. "If The New York Times comes to the North Carolina state legislature," says Sommer, "the reporters there are going to take it more seriously." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Washington Post; USA Today; The Wall Street Journal; Sacramento Bee; Albany Times-Union; Atlanta Journal- Constitution; Columbus Dispatch; Hartford Courant; Providence Journal Magazines US News & World Report; Time; Newsweek; BusinessWeek; regional and state political magazines; The Nation; The National Review; Texas Monthly Trade Outlets State Legislatures; Political Pulse; Capital Journal TV & Radio New York Week in Review and other PBS state government themed programming; NPR News Services AP; Reuters; Bloomberg News Service; Copley News Service, and other chain-based wires Internet Statenet.com; Stateline.org

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