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.