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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.