BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about the state of Statehouse news in his bi-weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.
We’re bombarded with news on-demand at our fingertips 24/7 in the new digital age. Facebook, Twitter, endless blogs and websites—instant information and opinion with every click, scroll and swipe.
But the technological tsunami has inadvertently caused collateral damage. A prime example: The pressroom at the State Capitol in Springfield is now a ghost town.
Media cutbacks precipitated by steep revenue declines, especially in the newspaper industry, have eviscerated reportage of state government.
Only four media outlets and 10 reporters handle the Statehouse beat fulltime, down from 40 journalists and 26 news bureaus in 2001.
That disturbing shrinkage—a skeleton crew trying to cover epic government dysfunction— prompted the Better Government Association to host a forum in Springfield earlier this month with a panel of five “newsies” who follow government closely and aren’t giving up the fight for an informed public and accountable Statehouse.
Panelists at “The Future of News: Covering the Capitol” included John O’Connor, Associated Press; Angie Muhs, State Journal-Register; Natasha Korecki, POLITICO Illinois; Chris Krug, Illinois News Network; and Clark Bell, McCormick Foundation’s former journalism funder.
Their collective takeaway: Much of state government now operates in the dark. “I can’t get to all the news—I can’t pretend to,” says O’Connor, the lone AP reporter distributing Statehouse news to media clients across Illinois. “So each day I go out and find the biggest story with the biggest impact.”
“The question,” asks Muhs, who runs Springfield’s only daily newspaper and also assigns just one fulltime reporter to the Capitol: “How can we be good watchdogs for citizens and tell them how government is affecting them while realizing we’re probably not going back to the staffing levels we had 15 years ago?”
The answer: Make the best of your limited resources, pick your news targets carefully and focus on results and impact, not process.
Korecki follows that formula from Chicago with her POLITICO Illinois Playbook, a daily on-line summary of state and local government news, including links to the full stories.
It’s a must read, like Springfield-based Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax blog.
They and a few others deliver high-quality coverage of what they can get to. But their limitations, and a tiny Statehouse press corps, creates a news void that’s being filled by faux media outfits with political agendas that drive their coverage, raising new concerns about the picture we’re getting about the state of our state.
That’s why “news literacy” is so important, says ex-foundation funder Bell, who now sits on the BGA board:
“It’s about civic engagement. We’re trying to arm voters, especially younger people, with the ability to understand what’s credible information and what isn’t.”
INN boss Chris Krug defends his organization’s credibility, despite its affiliation with the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. “We offer accurate, unbiased news coverage, but from a taxpayer perspective,” Krug says. “We ask ourselves what government is doing and what it costs.”
Clearly, the era of 40 Statehouse journalists crammed into the Press Room is history. Also gone are stories quaintly customized for local news markets, and most of the explanatory journalism that provides context and perspective.
Alongside the few remaining news stalwarts and fledgling agenda-based reporting is too much “he said/she said” whiplash news designed more to entertain than inform.
Not a pretty picture.
Robust, fact-based, nonpartisan journalism is essential for a healthy democracy. In Illinois, where a fiscal crisis is inflicting incalculable damage, we need more, not fewer, experienced reporters occupying front-row seats in the Capitol.
It’s not enough to simply click, scroll and swipe our way through the day.