The changing face of Statehouse coverage

Fewer newspaper reporters are covering state government.

And more nontraditional news organizations are stepping in to fill some of the void.

Those are two important takeaway points from a Pew Research Center study — “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press” — released last week.

According to the report, newspaper reporters remain the largest segment of the nation’s statehouse media corps. Newspapers account for 38 percent of the nation’s 1,592 full- and part-time state government reporters, and 43 percent of the nation’s 741 full-time statehouse reporters. But the number of full-time newspaper state government reporters has dropped by 35 percent since 2003.

This precipitous drop comes as little surprise. It’s no secret that the Great Recession took a big bite out of newspaper revenue; meanwhile, newspapers are trying to revamp their business model to align with the shift to online readership. These two forces came at the same time, and hit the industry hard — with an inevitable effect on staffing.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of statehouse media corps falls under what Pew calls “nontraditional” outlets. That’s kind of a catchall category: It takes in nonprofits and for-profit outlets, specialized outlets catering to government insiders; and outlets with a “stated ideological point of view.” By contrast, wire services account for 9 percent of the reporting corps, and TV accounts for 17 percent.

As the report notes, many “nontraditional” statehouse reporters have traditional backgrounds in newspapers. That’s certainly the case here at Idaho Education News: all three of us worked for Idaho daily newspapers, and two of us made the jump straight from newspapers into the startup sector.

So what about the future? Or, as the Pew report puts it, “Can new players compensate for lost legacy reporters?”

Personally, I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think our role is to compensate for “legacy reporters” — a term that always rankled me when I worked in the so-called “legacy” sector. I think our role is to fill a reporting niche that supplements and complements traditional coverage.

We’re not going to cover everything at the Statehouse. We will focus on K-12 policy, blanket the education committees, dissect the K-12 budget and keep an eye on tax issues that affect K-12. The rest —  everything from health care and business regulation to social and natural resource issues — are important issues that don’t fit into our bailiwick.

The same metric goes to covering politics. We’ll cover elections that have strong implications for K-12 — such as the governor’s race and the state superintendent’s race. We’ll leave other races to our capable colleagues.

I really think the question is whether “new players” can find a niche and produce unique, quality journalism. I think we’re on our way. Our articles are picked up by traditional news organizations around the state and our readership and social media numbers are headed in the right direction. We’ve also picked up some awards along the way. Not bad for an 18-month-old startup.

It’s a changing landscape, as the Pew report illustrates. But I think we’re carving out a place for ourselves.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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