Pew Center launches p.8

By: Kelvin Childs Web wire to provide info on state government news

As governmental power and money have shifted from Washington to the state capitals, the media hasn't always devoted enough resources to covering state government. Now a new Web site aims to help reporters get solid information on key topics of local concern. ( is a three-year project of the Pew Center on the states. It is supported by a $4.2 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, administered by the University of Richmond.
Launched Jan. 25, the Web site focuses on state government news, offering statistics, news stories, and an area to post queries to experts. The executive director is Ed Fouhy, founder of the Pew Center on Civic Journalism, and the deputy director and managing editor is Gene Gibbons, former senior White House correspondent for Reuters.
The impetus for Stateline was "devolution," the shift of money and power from the federal government to the states over the past 20 years. Examples include the consolidation of dozens of federal job training programs into a $24 billion block grant and the shift of welfare from a federal entitlement to a state-administered program.
"The states have always been the laboratories for democracy, and more so now," Fouhy says. However, Gibbons adds, "At the same time, there's been a marked decline in the coverage of statehouses."
A study in the July/August 1998 issue of American Journalism Review (AJR) found that 27 states have fewer reporters covering state government full time than they did in the early 1990s. Fouhy found similar results in his own January 1998 study of eight states.
Reasons include the closings of several newspapers, mergers and consolidations of others, shrinking news holes, and a lessened interest in political news on the part of publishers, editors, and readers. Also, the state capital isn't the prestige beat it once was. Now the star reporter is the one who produces the big Sunday takeout, Fouhy says.
Local television has largely walked away from covering politics. Stations in the major TV markets in California devoted only one-third of 1% of their news programming to coverage of the 1998 governor's race, according to a study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.
Gene Roberts, former managing editor of The New York Times, in a lecture at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill last April, said that newspapers must be indispensable to the serious reader. "This means more news coverage in depth and breadth, especially coverage of state government because it is involved in so many issues of vital interest to our readers," he said. "Alas, many newspapers ? I would argue the overwhelming majority of them ? are going the other way. Statehouses are increasingly under-covered even as they grow increasingly more important."
Veteran political reporter David Broder of The Washington Post spoke warily of the trend at the University of Denver in March 1997. "If devolution proceeds, as I think it will, and the coverage of state government does not get more serious and substantive ? the next generation of reporters is going to have something like what gave the muckrakers at the turn of the last century their great opening ? scandal upon scandal of unexamined government decision-making and the most corrupt use of money witnessed in this century," Broder said. "You put that much power and that much money in the hands of people who essentially know they are not being watched at all and this is guaranteed to happen."
Fouhy notes that the tenure of reporters in statehouse beats is getting shorter, as well as those of the lawmakers they cover. This poses another disadvantage for reporters: "Because of term limits, the main institutional memory in state capitals is not the veteran legislator, or the veteran journalist, but the veteran lobbyist," Fouhy says. Worse, lobbyists outnumber reporters by the hundreds. Georgia has 1,000 registered lobbyists but only five full-time statehouse reporters. is a bid to level the playing field a bit, by providing an independent source of data. Although anyone can access Stateline, users who register as journalists get pages with links to statistical data, drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau and other government sources. Some of the material isn't available elsewhere on the Web.
For example, education reporters can look up the average annual salary of teachers, per-pupil student spending, state property tax collections, and statewide gaps in per-pupil spending. The page allows a user to get the information for any state, or to compare data for any four states in one query.
"The one thing ? the only concern we have is that our information is accurate," Gibbons says. "We know that if you burn a journalist with inaccurate information, he's not going to be inclined to come back."
Stateline's five staff writers file daily stories on key topics ? welfare reform, health care, utility deregulation, education, and taxes and budgets. "Rather than cover all 50 states, we decided to pick up issues that were common to all 50 states," Gibbons says. The topics were chosen from a survey conducted last summer of more than 100 statehouse reporters. Other topics may be added to the mix later.
The site also links to stories from other newspapers on the selected topics, and provides a roundup from 114 newspaper Web sites, updated daily at 11 a.m. And there are links to related organizations and areas where reporters can post queries to experts. "We are trying to do some of the things reporters don't have time to do themselves," Fouhy says.
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher February 6, 1999) [Caption]


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