by Dana Heupel
There are a lot more vacant offices and empty desks in the Illinois Capitol Press Room than there used to be. That may be good news for politicians and state government administrators who don’t welcome media scrutiny. It’s bad news for the rest of us.
Facing budget constrictions, several newspapers and broadcast outlets have closed their Statehouse bureaus or cut back their staff at the Capitol. As print publications, especially, scramble to reverse declines in advertising and readership, the latest mantra for many editors has become “hyperlocal,” which means redirecting coverage to focus on issues closer to home. They’ve also begun to feature more “soft news,” such as stories about celebrities or personal finance. And some have reduced government coverage, believing that readers find it boring and unimportant to their everyday lives.
The phenomenon isn’t unique to Illinois, and it’s not even new. But it’s gaining steam as media financial pressures stoke the fire.
Newspapers published in Rockford and Champaign, two of the largest Illinois cities outside the Chicago metro area, shuttered their state Capitol bureaus this year. The Chicago Tribune has pared its full-time Statehouse staff from two reporters to one. Several Springfield radio stations and a Champaign television outlet no longer have reporters stationed full time in the press room. Other casualties reaching back over a decade or more have included reporters who covered the Capitol for Alton and Belleville newspapers, and the bureau for United Press International, a national wire service that has dramatically downsized. Copley Newspapers, which has since sold its Illinois properties to GateHouse Media, and the Chicago Sun-Times also reduced Statehouse staff in years past.
Because of media consolidations, it’s difficult to make comparisons over a long period, says Tom Massey, Capitol Press Room secretary, who has worked in the office for 35 years. But he says that at present, the press room in the Statehouse mezzanine — half a floor above the offices of the governor and other statewide officials; half a floor below the legislative chambers — houses 17 news bureaus, with 24 full-time print and broadcast journalists. About three years ago, Massey counted 21 bureaus with 32 full-time staff.
Ray Long is president of the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association and has covered Illinois government at the Capitol for the Chicago Tribune since 1998 and before then, the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Peoria Journal Star.
“Society and democracy both suffer when fewer eyes are on government. Bigger papers like the Tribune can shift resources and adapt, but citizens suffer when many organizations cut back Statehouse coverage,” Long says.
“People need to know when their public officials want to raise taxes, improve schools, spend wildly on pork-barrel projects or toughen requirements for getting a driver’s license.”
Over the past several decades, the federal government has shifted more responsibilities to state officials. Those increased duties include welfare reform, education policy and health care.
But “coverage of state government is in deep decline,” bemoaned the American Journalism Review in a 1998 study of statehouse reporting across the nation. At that time, the professional journal compared the number of Capitol reporters to the number of press credentials issued for the Super Bowl. The ratio was about one to six. Although no current national figures are available, the number has certainly followed the downward path of economic indicators during recent years.
Large news organizations like the Associated Press and the Tribune still report on major state political and government stories, and the smaller outlets that still maintain Capitol bureaus diligently follow news that relates to their specific circulation areas. But what is lost in the dwindling overall number of critical eyes on state government is the middle ground. That includes reporting on such issues as human services or agricultural policy. Overall news coverage of the state’s higher education system, for instance, suffered a blow when the Champaign newspaper closed its Capitol bureau, which had dug deeply into education policy because of the newspaper’s readership at the main campus of the University of Illinois.
A catchphrase around the Illinois Capitol Press Room, where I worked for a decade for Copley and GateHouse news services, is that it takes at least two years for a new reporter to figure out what’s really going on, given that nearly every public action by state legislators and other government officials has a hidden underlying motive. So the collective journalistic wisdom about the Statehouse also suffers when organizations lay off staff and close bureaus.
Uncertain times in the newspaper industry have reduced the overall number of journalism jobs, which sometimes has caused knowledgeable reporters to leave the news business. Kate Clements Cohorst went to work for the American Heart Association after the Champaign newspaper closed its Statehouse bureau, and Aaron Chambers joined the Serafin & Associates public relations firm after the Rockford paper eliminated his job. Kate has won a national journalism award for articles in this magazine, and Aaron is a former Statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Issues. They will do well in their new positions, and their decisions to pursue other careers are certainly understandable. But their hard-nosed Statehouse reporting skills will be sorely missed.
Jeff Meitrodt, who joined the Chicago Tribune in 2007 and was laid off in August, is looking for a job at this writing. He had played a major role in the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina before he arrived at the Tribune’s Springfield bureau. More Statehouse layoffs by other news outlets could follow as executives prepare their budgets for the coming year.
Most news organizations that have cut Statehouse staff will rely more on the Associated Press for Illinois government coverage.
“We have a tradition of hard-hitting coverage of state government, and we’re going to keep it up,” says George Garties, the AP’s bureau chief for Illinois. Despite its own financial tough times, the news service intends to fill a vacancy at the Capitol, maintaining its Springfield staff at three reporters.
Newspapers and broadcast outlets certainly have an obligation to their shareholders and owners to make a profit. And as revenues dwindle, they are increasing efforts to provide more of what news executives believe readers and viewers want. That sometimes means, according to surveys, more “softer” news stories and less government coverage. So when financial troubles make job cuts necessary, Statehouse coverage is often among the first to go.
But there’s also a civic obligation for news outlets to maintain their centuries-old status as watchdogs for the public, keeping vigilant eyes on the behavior of government officials. News organizations are protected by many laws — journalistically and financially — and public sentiment about those protections is waning.
Media executives must not forget that the First Amendment wasn’t written simply to safeguard the paparazzi’s rights to hound Britney Spears.
Dana Heupel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illinois Issues, October 2008