New data from the Pew Research Center has uncovered a decided counter-narrative in a key sector of American journalism: coverage of state government. The total number of reporters covering statehouses has actually increased by 11% since 2014.
The increase is badly needed. State governments dominate the debate on many high-impact public policy issues, from abortion to public education, access to voting and redistricting, how federal funds are spent, pandemic policies and what gets taught at schools.
In addition, independent journalism has always been an essential political watchdog — shining a light on corruption, waste and more.
The increase, according to the research, which was released on Tuesday, is due to two developments. One is that new nonprofit news organizations have emerged to fill the gap created by the decline of commercial newspapers, and the other is that organizations are shifting their reporters to more part-time statehouse reporting.
A total of 1,761 statehouse reporters were identified in the study, and just under half (48%) indicated they report on their statehouse full-time. The rest either cover the beat part time — a development that is consistent with another recent finding that reporters cover an average of four beats — or they are a mix of students, interns and perhaps stringers and the like.
The part-time status of state capital reporters is an increase from the 2014 version of the same study, which found that more than half of statehouse reporters were on the beat full time.
Meanwhile, as traditional newspaper
journalists have been decimated by relentless staff cutbacks over more than a decade, non-profit reporters have stepped in to fill the void.
They now add up to 20% of all statehouse reporters, for a total of 353 journalists — up from 6% in 2014. And non-profit reporters, Pew found, make up the largest journalist category on the beat in 10 states, and the second-largest in another 17 states.
The overwhelming number of non-profits have launched since 2014 or are new in deploying reporters to the state government beat.
Pew’s research included TV, radio, digital-only, newspapers, wire services, universities, and more among those polled.
Data for the report was compiled through a census of journalists between September of last year and mid-March of this year. It covered all 50 states and included in-depth interviews with editors, legislative staff and industry experts, in addition to beat reporters.
Patterns varied markedly based on the state. Thirty-one states increased their reporters covering the state government, while 16 — including Texas, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Missouri and Mississippi — experienced declines. Three stayed the same.
The size of a statehouse’s press corps in a given state, the research found, is linked to two factors: the state’s population and the length of its legislative sessions. Those with larger populations and longer sessions are more likely to have more full-time statehouse reporters.