WisBusiness: News media woes trim traditional capitol reporting

By Erik Gunn

For WisBusiness.com

The continued downsizing of traditional media, especially newspapers, is being felt everywhere, but one place in particular: shrinking coverage of America’s statehouses.

Madison isn’t immune from what American Journalism Review calls “a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America’s state capitols” with the loss of at least three correspondents in recent years writing either for newspapers or newspaper chains. (According to AJR: the Capital Times dropped to one reporter; Lee Newspapers eliminated a bureau shared by papers in Racine, Chippewa Falls and La Crosse; and Gannett’s papers in Appleton and Green Bay now share a correspondent.)

Steve Walters, Madison bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, calculates the number of regular Capitol reporters has gone from more than 25 two decades ago to fewer than 18 now, and a number of those are broadcasters who aren’t there every day. Scott Bauer, Madison correspondent for the Associated Press, says he typically sees only eight to 10 colleagues a day in the Capitol pressroom, once a buzzing hub of activity during legislative sessions.

David Stoeffler, a former Lee Newspapers executive who worked at the Wisconsin State Journal as an editor and reporter, recalls providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee in the mid-1980s — side-by-side with reporters from the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, Madison’s Capital Times, the Janesville Gazette, Wisconsin Public TV, AM news radio reporters and the occasional commercial TV news person. “The chance of something slipping into the budget bill without one of us knowing about it was pretty slim,” says Stoeffler, now a news industry consultant.

Now one wire service — UPI — has vanished, leaving only the venerable Associated Press. The three reporters in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Madison bureau do the work once done by twice as many staffers for two separate papers. And the sort of coverage that was once routine has plummeted in the priorities of editors and news directors.

”What newspapers have found is that the state government coverage is not the sexy kind of thing that people want to read,” says Rich Eggleston, an AP writer for a quarter century before he joined the communications staff of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities in 1996.

For some, it’s a worrisome trend. “We are dumbing down America with the demise of the professional journalists,” says veteran GOP Sen. Mike Ellis of Neenah. “All we’re doing is reinforcing our predetermined conclusions. There are more opinions available to the public, but less information available.”

Not everyone is so unhappy. GOP Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — former owner of the Dodge County Independent newspaper — points out there are many other sources of news about state government than there were even a decade ago, such as WisconsinEye, which carries live video coverage of legislative action, blogs and even Twitter posts by legislators. State Rep. Robin Vos has been sending Tweets regularly from the Joint Finance Committee. There’s also the online news services WisPolitics.com and the Wheeler Report.

“The general public can go online, see the bill language, see where it is in the legislative process and then now with reporters and legislators starting to use Twitter news can become almost instantaneous,” says Fitzgerald aide Kimberly Liedl. “All of this makes government more accessible to the general public.”

Yet such news sources are more likely to be followed by people with a particularly strong interest in state government — or who stand to lose or gain directly from the passage of legislation. Ordinary voters may not have the patience or time to wade through primary sources. And Tweets from partisan legislators clearly don’t pass for the sort of more balanced coverage that an independent press ideally provides.

John Smalley, the new editor at the State Journal, says there’s no denying coverage has changed: “It’s a matter of resource allocation and prioritizing what we’re doing.” His paper’s two state government reporters go for “overarching stories, trend stories, stories about the changing nature of legislation” while leaving to the AP day-to-day coverage that “we don’t need to duplicate.” Smalley says that’s actually freed up his staffers to dig more deeply into Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget this year. “We might not have gone to that extent if we were focused on other things.”

Bauer at the AP confirms that both Madison papers increasingly focus on enterprise stories, relying on his crew for spot coverage. At the same time AP’s priorities as well are shifting increasingly to “stories that are of nationwide impact,” he says. “The days of sitting in the Assembly chamber and filing something on every bill that gets discussed, those have been gone for a long time now.”

What’s next? No one is sure. Next door in Minnesota a vibrant mix of online general news sites is emerging, some of which cover that state’s government in depth.

There’s MinnPost.com, the Minnesota Independent (minnesotaindependent.com) and the Twin Cities Daily Planet (tcdailyplanet.net) — the latter two with a more consciously left-of-center bent.

Plus, Dolan Media (which owns the Wisconsin Law Journal and the Daily Reporter legal newspaper in Milwaukee) operates Politics in Minnesota and the St. Paul Legal Ledger’s Capitol Report, both online.

Beyond WisPolitics.com and Wisconsin Eye, however, new outlets haven’t yet emerged in Wisconsin.

Stoeffler, who now operates Touchstone Consulting, says editors he’s talked to acknowledge “that covering government is a critical part of their function,” but increasingly are hamstrung by fewer resources. He predicts that increasingly they’ll pool resources and expand coverage where they once duplicated each other’s efforts.

The new nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — which partners with the UW-Madison’s School of Mass Communication, Wisconsin Public TV and Wisconsin Public Radio — could help fill the gap. Directed by former State Journal reporter Andy Hall, the center recently won a $100,000 grant to start digging up stories and has begun hiring help. Hall hopes to see some of its work emerge after July 1.

“As long as there is an interest in the workings of government there will be entrepreneurs who come forward to cover it,” Stoeffler says.