State coverage as a worthy charity

There’s nothing unsexier in journalism than covering state government. “Trenton bureau” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Paris bureau,” does it? Do you know the names of your statehouse reps? I’ll confess I don’t.

And so my biggest fear in the death of metro papers is the vacuum that will be left in coverage of state capitals. I don’t buy the dire predictions that journalism itself or investigative journalism will die with those papers. Washington will still be covered; one could say it’s over-covered (if often poorly covered) today. City government will be covered because it affects people’s lives directly and because there’ll always be somebody to catch the mayor red-handed.

But statehouses? Unless your governor is a former movie star or pro wrestler or client of prostitutes, they don’t get much – enough – attention. And even when it does get covered, there’s no obvious and endemic advertising support. Capital coverage was the gift of broccoli from news organizations and no one’s likely to bring that dish to the new news potluck.

That’s why I think that in the new ecosystem of news, state capital coverage may need to be publicly and charitably supported. Unsexy though it may be, it does affect our lives and purses. And witness the inanity in Albany lately, state government is populated too often with crooked fools who must be watched.

I’ve had a few email exchanges on the topic with John Thornton, a venture capitalist in Texas who’s worrying about state coverage. “It’s where the economics are the most up-side down,” he said:

Think about this: the total 08 Fed budget was $3.1 trillion. Subtract, national defense and entitlements, and it shrinks to $1.3 trillion. That’s the “discretionary spend” which is the dominion of Congress. Sure, there is always room for better coverage of Congress, but I’d submit that it’s pretty well covered as is.

On the other hand, the cumulative state budgets are $1.6 trillion, or 30% *more* than the discretionary spend of Congress. These taxpayer dollars are, of course, spread out into 50 byzantine and corrupt state capitols, the coverage of which has fallen dramatically and continues to do so.

So how will such coverage be funded? Thornton is counting on philanthropy. He said:

It’s certainly apropos to look at the public radio and tv numbers. Austin’s npr station, kut has 200k listeners and 17k contributors—the best conversion rate I know of. They raise $3m from individuals and $3m from contributors. . . .

Dance companies in Texas raise $20mm a year. . . . If journalism philanthropy, 10 years from now, were the size of dance, we’d put 150 reporters on statewide issues and could literally change the way state government operates. Think about that: an extra 20 at the capital; a couple each for all the agencies and the school board; 20 on the border. You almost can’t spend that much money responsibly. I don’t need opera. I don’t need visual arts. Don’t need symphony. Just give me dance, and I’ll change state government.

What this needs is people with the passion of a Thornton to sell the cause and raise the money. But as with NPR and Wikipedia and Spot.US, not everyone who benefits has to give to make the nut.

This is one of the areas we are investigating at the New Business Models for News Project. The question we are asking is how much potential charitable giving we can project for news in a market and what that will support.

We will also look at how the rest of the ecosystem can support this coverage. For example, wouldn’t it be wonderful if your town and city blogs and sites had at the ready charts to tell you who your state reps were and what they’ve been doing: their votes and expense accounts, too? Support will come not only with money – it has to start there – but also with the attention papers used to be able to give such coverage.

: LATER: In the comments, Bob Wyman argues that state capital coverage is actually a good entrepreneurial opportunity.

: Progress Illinois adds

Another disconcerting metric: The wide ratio of lobbyists to reporters. Here in Illinois, we have more than 3,000 registered state lobbyists. The number of working journalists in Springfield, by contrast, falls in the dozens. Indeed, a recent report found only 355 full-time state capitol reporters nationwide.

  • http://linkedin.com/in/csread csread

    This is a really important point about covering state and local politics! This is where the real work of Democracy is done – at the most local level. And yet most people have no idea who represents them at the state house, their board of supervisors or the school board. Here in Virginia, we have a lot of blogs operated and maintained by very credible journalists and citizen journalists. Some are politically motivated by party politics and others are just straight up local reporting about local government.

    In my opinion what is missing is a way to aggregate what is already out there first and foremost. There is a blog that has a map of Virginia and names all the representatives in the House & Senate. There is a website that shows every political candidate and how much money they’ve raised and where it came from. There is live streaming video from the floor of the General Assembly – I’ve watched it! None of these things are connected together or easy to find.

    We need to inspire and motivate more people to be a part of their own local reporting. On Twitter, I follow several local news reporters, political bloggers, one of my US Senators – Mark Warner, and my VA State Senator, Chap Peterson. Chap, my local rep in the House of Delegates, David Bulova, and my Fairfax City Councilman Dan Drummond, are all in my Facebook group too. That speaks to politicians who are willing to learn a new way of communicating and are comfortable in being transparent about what they are doing.

    So my suggestion is that this is an initiative that has many facets other than how to fund it. Getting the money is certainly a big thing, but strides could be made immediately in simply better utilizing what’s there; getting the public on board as both consumers and producers of their own local content; and teaching politicians that a closer relationship with their constituency all year ’round has many benefits come election time. I think it’s not only do-able but highly desirable! GREAT post!

    • http://www.virginiainterfaithcenter.org Patrick Getlein

      I hope you’ll add “VA_policywonks” to the list of people you follow on Twitter. That’s where staff from the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy tweet from. We live tweet from inside committee hearings and other Virginia-specific policy forums across a range of issues including uranium mining, redistricting, predatory lending and restoration of rights.

  • http://twitter.com/bfinnegan Brent Finnegan

    While good, old-fashioned watchdog reporting is irreplaceable, I believe software can help. One of Virginia’s most well-known bloggers, Waldo Jaquith, created Richmond Sunlight a few years ago. It tracks every state legislator, every bill, and links to a campaign contribution site for each.

    Waldo gave Richmond Sunlight to Virginia Interfaith Center, a non-profit faith-based advocacy group.

    I still wish there was a way to fund a reporter to cover the Shenandoah Valley delegation (1 senator, 5 delegates), but Richmond Sunlight has become indispensable. Every state should have a capitol sunlight.

  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    Funny you should mention “Trenton Bureau.” Coverage of NJ’s statehouse has been decimated of late…
    State House coverage is a particularly good opportunity for focused entrepreneurial news bureaus since there are multiple markets for the data and thus multiple viable monetization strategies.
    * Average Citizen market: The average citizen is interested in general awareness coverage and more in-depth coverage of a tiny percentage of the issues covered. This market is probably best served via ad-supported content either on the web site of the news bureau or via revenue-sharing with other news sites that require local coverage but can’t afford to do it themselves. (i.e. follow a “news syndication” strategy)
    * Interest Group Market: Every state has thousands of businesses, lawyers, and other “interested parties” that require in-depth coverage of even the most obscure subjects. These people will pay significant subscription fees for newsletters, protected web sites, etc. in order to get the data and perspectives they need. (For a model of how to build a business serving up detailed data on government, consider the Bureau of National Affairs (http://www.bna.com/) in D.C.)

    A good “State House News Bureau” is probably one of the easier segments of journalism to build a business around. The newspapers don’t think they can afford to provide decent coverage and seemingly refuse to consider augmenting their revenues by addressing the professional markets for State House coverage. Thus, there is often little competition in the State House News market in all but the largest states.

    Beyond simply addressing the two markets mentioned above, a good State House bureau can easily address other market needs as well. For instance, doing “stringer” work for TV stations, holding annual conferences on State politics, publishing “year-in-state-house” annual summaries of news, building directories of “Who’s Who” in the State, etc. All of these things either monetize things that the bureau already needs to be doing or provides an additional revenue stream based on reputation built providing the news services.

    bob wyman

  • http://www.joemescher.com/ Joe Mescher

    Let me take your idea a step further…

    Here in Vermont, we (the Twittering Public) are looking out for our unemployed community and taking action – Reporting with a Mission.

    We established the ‘Vermont Video Resume Project’ to ensure every single unemployed Vermonter who wants a video resume gets one.

    Politicians are invited to help further the cause at:

    http://www.VideoResumeVT.com

    Apologies if this comment is slightly off topic,

    Joe Mescher

  • http://politicalhermeneutics.typepad.com/weblog/ Kristen Burroughs

    Respectfully, Sir, coverage of the statehouse has already shifted to New Media sources. I’m surprised you distrust ordinary bloggers and citizen reporters who are covering local and state politics. Why the concern?

    In my state, Arizona, more than thirty blogs cover the statehouse from liberal, conservative as well as libertarian perspectives. What used to be done exclusively by the Arizona Republic is now done more efficiently and in greater depth by a myriad of sources, both print and electronic.

    In print, we’ve got the Yellow Sheet Report, the Phoenix Business Journal (with extensive coverage of the statehouse), and many small regional papers that cover local legislators and issues. Some of these local papers are a spirited, good read including The Sonoran News, for example, which covers my hometown and an area encompassing three legislative districts.

    Although self-serving, most of Arizona’s elected officeholders also have blog sites. My state representative emails on a weekly basis. Many twitter. My elected officials also have Facebook pages, both personal and political.

    In my opinion, the best information is found on anonymous or semi-anonymous blogs in which those who seem to know what’s going on – lobbyists, paid researchers, interested citizens – divulge insider information we’d otherwise not know. These blogs often expose the nasty infighting between the parties, or within them. Sometimes coverage is salacious. Tabloidish. A good read or laugh.

    Legislation debates in committees and the state house are also covered in a local C-Span-like television program – dull, but occasionally worth looking at.

    In my legislative district (7) an activist, Howard Levine, lists all upcoming legislation, discusses which elected officials were most active in promoting or demoting the legislation, and then weighs the information according to how close it is to the Republican platform. It is not a well-trafficked site — yet — but is deeply informative.

    This reporting works. Information gets out. In my opinion, the biggest problem isn’t lack of information or reporting, but citizen disinterest in state and local government. We certainly don’t need big philanthropy to replace big media. I want to keep it small, close to the communities, opinionated and anonymous. It has never been better, Sir. Really!

    Civil society has been filling the void where big papers once ruled. Fear not.

    • http://LincolnParishNewsOnline.wordpress.com Walter Abbott

      This is exactly what is happening in Louisiana. More information about state government is more widely available to more people faster than any time in our history. If someone doesn’t know what is going on in Baton Rouge, it’s because they don’t want to know.

      I intend to do the same with my local parish (county) blog.

  • Keith Porter

    I fully agree with what Bob Wyman writes here.

    Any news organization currently located in a state capital should seriously consider jumping on this opportunity to become known as “the” source for statehouse news. And they should offer that coverage on as many platforms as possible. Done well, selling this coverage could subsidize the rest of their news operations.

    Those news organizations located in state capitals have a built in geographic advantage they should exploit. But if they don’t… someone else will likely swoop in and do it instead.

    Keith

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  • http://www.kentslife.blogspot.com Kent Schnake

    Not long ago, I too realized that I have very seldom known who my statehouse reps are. Local papers have not really covered them much. So the loss of papers would matter. Even when the paper does cover a state level legislature topic, the truth is that I tend to ignore it.

    Recently I did a Google search to learn more about my state rep. All the information was easily available. Now I just have to convince myself to care more about my state rep than about the fact that Perez Hilton got punched.

    Sad isn’t it?

  • http://coloredopinions.blogspot.com Colored Opinions

    Maybe call the site “All the King’s men”.

  • http://www.localtvnews.wordpress.com Mark Joyella

    Jeff,

    Philanthropic or community support of journalists on beats uncovered by for-profit media may be a model for the future. Len Witt at Kennesaw State has written about the idea of community-supported journalists to cover uncovered groups–either geographic or shared-interest, and I recently became a guinea pig to test the theory.

    I’ve been hired for a year to report on the worldwide business of coaching (business, personal, financial, sports) by The Coaching Commons, and my salary comes from the nonprofit Harnisch Foundation.

    A mantra moving forward may be this: not seeing stories you want to see covered? An important beat being ignored as local stations cut back and cable nets shutter overseas bureaus in favor of keeping the fires burning on Jon and Kate Plus Eight? Your answer: Hire a Journalist.

    I’ve been hired… and I’m happy to be at work.

    Mark

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  • PlatformAgnosticJournalist

    Jeff,

    Curious for some elaboration on why you think state coverage is more in danger than local city hall coverage? I presume it’s because you think that the smaller local newspapers will always cover City Halls. They have a slightly more monopolistic grip on that coverage. Noone else will do it. By constrast, most papers can rely on AP for Statehouse coverage. I presume that’s your thinking.

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  • http://douglasdiner.multiply.com/journal Marylee Assaf

    Personally I don’t think that Mr. Handsome has received enough accolades for his humanitarian efforts. In my opinion a lot of celebrity do-gooders are totally phony and engage in so called good deeds merely for positive publicity. I have to say that I don’t think that George is one of the phonies out there in the world of celbrity do-gooders. I admire what he is doing for the Haitian people. I wish more celebrities were as real as he is when it comes to helping out those less fortunate in the world. So kudos to George and his desire to make this world a better place.

  • http://www.worldofwatches.com Amber

    This is truly amazing post!

    Agreed to Bob Wyman message!