Who’ll cover the state

Throw Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column atop the pile of columns from all over declaring that bloggers won’t replace newspapers. Careful that it doesn’t topple on you. I wish there were a pile of equal size making that argument about bloggers and papers, but I can’t find it. It’s a red herring in a barrel. But rather than one more time trying to shoot down another attempt to shoot down this nonexistent premise, let’s look at Fisher’s real challenge – how will state government be covered – and see whether there aren’t new answers, with or without bloggers. He writes:

In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No’s won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone’s property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people’s lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.

OK, start here: I’d recommend that Fisher should have headed across town to the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp. I think transparency as a default for governments at every level is the first answer: every piece of legislation online and every debate and committee meeting recorded and shared. That alone won’t yield reporting but it would enable journalists and citizens anywhere in a state to monitor bills and topics and share what’s notable.

Then the services of one or more reporters or bloggers should be shared by every publication in the state. A capitol bureau is hardly a differentiating feature for a paper. We’re headed this way with, for example, the consortia of Ohio and New York/New Jersey papers now sharing their content statewide. So imagine if a journalist’s coverage appeared in every paper and on every site of news organizations in the state with a share of revenue for advertising on it to the reporter. That might – just might – cover the cost. We’ll see. At the Norg unconference in Philadelphia three years ago, thee was discussion about this structure with a blogger who was covering Harrisburg.

Next, local reporters and bloggers can do a better job covering the activities of their representatives. I’d like to start by seeing the voting record of my state reps; it’d be easy to set up RSS feeds for every district that local bloggers could include and discuss.

Covering legislatures is the easier part of this. Covering executive-branch bureacrats is harder but I think that coverage will shift from the geographically based – that is, by people in the state capital – over to topically based – that is, a local green reporter or blog watching the state’s environmental actions.

I don’t have a buttoned-up plan to replace the coverage of newspaper statehouse bureaus. But it’s already true that they are shrinking and so rather than just complaining about that – and pointing out for the Nth time that bloggers won’t replace their headcount – we need to look at how the functions of covering state government can be fulfilled in new ways.

  • http://www.istrategylabs.com Peter Corbett

    Jeff, I’m glad we could chat for a bit during SocComm – and it would be great to have you at Transparency Camp. You could have let a session “If Google Were the Government What Would It Do”.

    Peter
    http://www.twitter.com/corbett3000

  • Pingback: DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Who’ll cover the state

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    There is a basic conflict between government (or any large bureaucracy) and the press.

    That’s why when things happen they’re called backroom deals.

    So the parts of the legislative process that are visible (like floor debates) are seldom important. They may good copy if the speaker is especially intelligent or foolish, but it is still political theater.

    Finding out what is really going on requires dedicated reporters who can establish lasting relationships with staffers, lobbyists and special interest groups. This takes a lot of work, which is why we don’t see much of it these days.

    In NY we just had 30 years of state government being run by three men in secret – the governor, and the heads of the assembly and the senate. Maybe with a Dem senate things will open up a bit, but this won’t be due to any achievements by the press.

    I don’t see how substituting independent journalists, assuming you can figure out a way to pay them, will make any difference, if all they are going to do is report public activities.

    It is the mandate that a properly function press has, to dig out stories that the establishments wants hidden, that keeps a democracy functioning. As the press became part of the establishment it lost interest in shaking things up.

    Bloggers may have the passion, but they don’t (yet) have the resources. Notice that the Sunlight foundation is run as a non-profit, just the kind of thing that runs counter the the “what would Google do” theme that one can do good and make money at the same time.

  • http://wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    There are many markets for state house news:
    * Some are large markets in which the value of state house news is present but minimal. For instance, many people will be read an article about raising the rates on vanity plates, but most won’t pay for such news.
    * Some are specialized markets that have a small number of people who attribute great value to relevant news. For instance, there are thousands of lobbyists, lawyers, accountants, etc. that will be interested in news about paying salaries with debit cards… These people will and do pay large sums for relevant, quality and focused news.

    A modern state-house news bureau would address at least both markets. They would have a number of journalists covering “state house” in excruciating detail with lots of analysis. This product would be offered for sale on a subscription basis to groups whose livelihood depends on such news. The same group would then supplement their revenues (and draw readership) by syndicating “lite” news to other news organizations in the state. Occasionally, when specific bits of news become generally interesting, less-lite news might be syndicated nationally or internationally — in exchange for revenue splits on associated advertising.

    The point here is that you can afford to cover state house issues if you use a multi-level hyper-focused approach. You can address several markets for the same basic news product as long as you adjust treatment, editorial policy, and revenue generation in a manner specific to each market. Also, focus on a limited realm in order to build a dominating expertise in the domain and thus both discourage competition as well as “earn” the ability to charge for content.

    If properly structured, it is likely that coverage of state house issues, using the model above, would be vastly better than the coverage provided today. The reason is that in today’s world, state house is at best only one of many areas that are covered by any paper. What I argue for above is an organization that focuses only on state house news. I would expect as well that such an organization would certainly end up with a larger staff of state house reporters than any individual newspaper ever had in the past.

    It should also be noted that state house news in one state is often relevant to lawyers, legislators, corporate leaders and others with specialist interests in other states. Thus, there is an opportunity here for an “All State House News” aggregation organization to be formed that provides a cross-state view of what’s happening. This group would focus on linking together stories from individual states into state-independent “issue buckets” as well as providing analysis and insight articles based on reading all the state feeds. The aggregator would also, I assume, serve as a feeder of advertising to the state-specific teams, would resell their custom feeds, etc.

    There is a ton of money to be made here. Who’s going to make it?

    bob wyman

  • http://www.jprof.com/ Jim Stovall

    Jeff,

    The general argument that you have commented on today is one that we hear over and over: If newspapers die, who’ll cover _________ (fill in the blank).

    I take exactly the opposite view — that journalism has every chance of being better once we are free from the shackles of print. I made that argument about three weeks ago here:

    http://jprof.blogspot.com/2009/02/demise-of-newspapers-means-better.html

    Your post today reinforces that argument.

    Regardless of what any of us say at this point, it’s going to happen. The demise of newspapers has begun and can’t be reversed. Thus, we need to look forward to the opportunities we have to make journalism better.

    Jim Stovall
    University of Tennessee

    • Andy Freeman

      > The general argument that you have commented on today is one that we hear over and over: If newspapers die, who’ll cover _________ (fill in the blank).

      And, in almost all cases, newspapers aren’t covering {the blank}, so their death won’t affect coverage.

  • Walter Abbott

    Jeff,

    We get to the heart of the issue with this column and your post. It is my contention that since the invention of the telegraph and the rise of monopoly wire services (AP, UPI, Reuters), the Dinosaur Media has to one degree of another been an agent of the State. They depend on one another. They share power.

    Now that the distribution system monopoly is broken, we finally will have real independent reporting about what government does or doesn’t do.

  • Pingback: Post-accountability government

  • http://www.cavanagh.info Michael Cavanagh

    I’ll do it.

    Now, how do I get press credentials…

    Can you imagine the conversation in the statehouse press office?

    “You want credentials but you left this line on who your employer is blank. So who is it that you represent?”

    Me: “Um, my legion of followers on Twitter?”

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      ALready happened in NYC, where bloggers won a settlement and got credentials. Note well that a HuffPo blogger asked Obama a question at the last press conference. That bridge is crossed.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Now, how do I get press credentials…

      Do you really believe that press credentials are relevant to newsgathering?

      Yes, they’re nice status tokens, but that’s actually a bad thing as far as readers are concerned.

      You do remember readers, right? They’re the folks in “service to readers” that journalists keep mentioning as their reason for existence.

      Much the same applies to press conferences.

      • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

        Andy,
        In general, you’re way right: press credentials are a ticket to join the mob and do what everyone else is doing. But sometimes, they are vital to getting to the right person to ask the right question. But I agree with your point: credentials are corrupting in practice. Great point.

  • http://jstj.wordpress.com/ JAmes Blackman

    The problem here in bloggers covering the UK local government is that journalists are trained for around 6 months in how local government actually works. You need to be able to understand something well before reporting on it. Reporting on government is an expertise – I would think it would be very tricky without sufficient training or experience. Maybe I’m wrong though.

  • http://jstj.wordpress.com/ JAmes Blackman

    The major problem with state/council news is that not many people seem to read it!