By: David Noack
Many face competition from larger papers in other parts of
their states that have statehouse bureaus; they must come up with
the right balance of state government and general news coverage sp.
FOR THE MOST part, state capitals have played only a supporting role on the political and public policy stage.
Some of the reasons include competition from other levels and branches of government, the often out-the-way location of most state capitals, and the part-time nature of state legislatures.
But in the 1980’s, the pendulum started to swing back to the states, with the Reagan Administration’s proposed New Federalism and mounting federal deficits which hampered the role of the national government to create new programs or expand existing ones.
With renewed interest in the “50 laboratories of democracy,” the usually smaller state capital newspapers began facing increased competition from suburban and big-city dailies in their states ? most of whom have capital bureaus ? as well as from the wire services, radio and television.
Today, state capitals are the place to be in terms of government news and policymaking, whether on health care, welfare or campaign finance reform. The issues, personalities and controversies make good copy but the hometown newspapers have had to balance state vs. local coverage, taking into account such issues as news space, staffing and for many of them, redefining their role in the face of resurgent competition.
The larger big-city dailies can bring more resources to bear on covering state government. So, in order for the capital newspapers to remain competitive, they’ve had to share resources and stories with sister newspapers, establish editorial priorities and pay closer attention to their readers.
With the exception of the Tallahassee Democrat ? which has a weekday circulation of roughly 60,000 and a Sunday circulation of 80,000, the circulation of other daily newspapers cited in this article range from 11,000 to 30,000.
News from a state capital is likely to have statewide impact ? say a hike in the personal income tax rate ? but there are also issues of more parochial concern, such as changes in employee pension plans or approving a new state workers’ contract. While a bill funding a mass transportation system for a major city elsewhere in the state would get big play in that particular city’s newspaper, it would probably only get a brief mention in the state capital daily.
Since state government also tends to be the largest employer, it’s also treated by local newspapers as a business barometer and an economic development tool. The direct economic impact includes jobs, payroll, employee benefits, contracts, consultants, lobbyists, and tourism among others.
For these smaller state capital newspapers, it’s a constant balancing act in trying to cover news of statewide potential, while serving the needs of local readers.
In Tallahassee, for example, the Democrat, a Knight-Ridder newspaper, has the local market in and around Leon County pretty much to itself. But it faces daily competition for state government news from newspapers in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Miami.
Robert Shaw, the Democrat’s managing editor who covered state government when he was at the Miami Herald in the 1970’s and served as its state bureau chief, said the competition has always been fierce.
“We have a two reporter capital bureau, which is smaller than several of the bureaus maintained by our big city competitors,” noted Shaw. “There are 35,000 state employees who work in Leon County, not all of them live here, but they work here for the government, so we really emphasize coverage in areas that matter to them. We cover state government as what it is, the area’s largest employer.”
He said that stories on the state workforce, changes in pension laws, health benefits and programs, such as telecommuting, are of prime importance to his readers.
“We have one reporter who spends almost all of his time writing about state employee issues on everything from health care to day care to salaries to mileage reimbursements, as well as the stuff that goes on within the bureaucracy that particularly affects workers,” said Shaw.
He said the Democrat sometimes runs state pertinent stories from the Herald, also a Knight-Ridder newspaper, to help supplement their coverage.
“Local readers look to the newspaper for analysis of state employees health coverage or changes in career or civil service,” Shaw said. “We think these are stories that our readers can’t get anywhere else and for the most part every other newspaper in the state ignores them, and understandably so, since they don’t have the percentage of readers who are state employees as we do. It is a challenge, these other newspapers are widely available, same-day, rack-stand circulation. Our coverage is being compared to that of other newspapers.”
Across the country, in Carson City, Nevada, the Nevada Appeal, is in a state of flux concerning its state capital coverage.
Managing editor Don Ham said the newspaper is going through some changes and challenges, which included shifting to a morning paper from an evening paper and creating zoned editions.
But the biggest upheaval occurred when Donrey Media Group sold the newspaper to three former Donrey officials who formed a company called SCORES Inc.
“We are a small newspaper going through some big time changes in the last few years,” said Ham.
It’s within that context that Ham explains how state government coverage at the paper is not yet what it should be and he hopes to have the situation resolved by the end of the year.
“We were a member of the Donrey Media Group and paid part of the operational costs of a capital bureau and we shared that bureau with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is the largest newspaper in the state, and the smallest daily newspaper, the Ely Daily Times. They are still members of Donrey, we are not. We were told that we could no longer subscribe to the Donrey capital bureau. That bureau is a good bureau. It led the state in government coverage,” said Ham.
He said since the Appeal is no longer affiliated with Donrey, a retired city editor has been picking up state government coverage on a free-lance basis.
“We want to really give good coverage of what is happening in the statehouse since most of our readers are either employed by the state, work with it, contractors, or people who know someone who works for the state. So we’ve always given the statehouse real good coverage. We give the same emphasis to state and local coverage. My readers are real demanding. They want a lot more information about everything, but definitely statehouse coverage,” said Ham.
In Augusta, Maine, Kennebec Journal executive editor Alan Buncher finds himself sharing state government news with a larger sister newspaper, the Press-Herald.
Guy Gannett Communications Company owns two daily newspapers in the state in addition to the Journal, the Central Maine Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Press Herald in Portland.
“We really don’t worry about competing against the big city newspaper in Portland, because they are our sister newspaper,” he said. “We provide information to them and they provide information to us, in fact we trade stories everyday. So, in terms of competing with the larger paper, there’s no competition, so much as cooperation. We have an advantage because we have the resources of all of Guy Gannett Communications here in the capital and when our sister newspaper has a story that’s hot, they will share it with us here.”
The importance of state government to central Maine means it’s covered as much as an economic lifeline, as well as for its political and policy-making roles.
“We cover it as business,” Buncher said.
Richard McGonegal, managing editor of the Post-Tribune in Jefferson City, Missouri, said covering state government is seasonal, with increased coverage when lawmakers are in session.
“We’ve had a few scandals in the recent past which has seemed to amplify the volume a little bit, but I don’t know if [state capital coverage] has changed that much. Everybody typically watches for stories of interest to their own region. We put a lot of our focus on those things which are going to impact people in central Missouri,” said McGonegal.
He said when the state legislature is out of session, the focus turns to the various state agencies and departments ? the permanent bureaucracy.
“The major agencies are based here and they’re always up to something and then of course, you’ve got the elected officials, the auditor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, there’s plenty to keep us busy when the lawmakers are not in session,” McGonegal said.
“As goes state government so goes the community, economically speaking. It is the mainstay. I think the net biggest employer is the public school system and then you get into some of the major manufacturers and some of the hospitals. But State government is the primary employer,” he said.
McGonegal said the Post-Tribune also publishes a monthly called The Statesman, a 16-page tabloid insert which focuses on state government, state personnel changes and profiles.
“Each month we do a comprehensive cover story, pick an issue that deals with state government and explore that comprehensively,” said McGonegal.
Carleton West, editor of the State Journal in Frankfort, Kentucky, a Dix Communications paper, said coverage of state government has increased.
In addition to an increase in legislation passed, he said the need to put into perspective how it affects people economically means more space needs to be devoted to its coverage.
He said the growing amount of “rules and regulations” pertaining to the environment and the education system also means more space needs to be devoted to these topics.
He said that while one reporter is assigned to cover state government, other reporters are responsible for particular issues that may be the subject of a bill or regulated by a state agency.
West relies on the Associated Press to supplement coverage.
Robert Dean, managing editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, said that while there’s been an increase in statehouse coverage, it has not been a dramatic hike.
He said two reporters cover state government on a year-round basis and a third is added during the legislative session.
“During the legislative session we devote a full-page of coverage to the legislature for anything that doesn’t appear on Page One,” Dean said. “At times, when the legislature is not in session, state government news becomes part of the local news mix.”
?( Noack is a free-lance writer) [Caption]