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Opinion

Where have all the state capitol reporters gone?

It doesn't matter if they blog, e-mail, or text, but we need journalists there to hold politicians accountable.

By / June 22, 2009



New York

Have you heard the latest joke? It's called the New York Legislature.

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Two Democrats recently defected to the Republicans, allowing the GOP to take over the Senate; someone locked the door of the Senate chamber, until Republicans mysteriously located the key; then one of the two defectors came back to the Democrats, leaving the Senate in a deadlock.

And it's all been good fun for the fourth estate. Adding to the circuslike atmosphere in Albany, the New York Post sent a real live clown into the statehouse to poke fun at lawmakers. Meanwhile, editorialists tripped over one another in condemning the Legislature's curious mixture of insolence and incompetence.

"Many important issues remain unaddressed as lawmakers are consumed by this clownish partisan free-for-all about whose petty issues most New Yorkers could not care less," declared the Staten Island Advance, in a typical complaint.

But here's the part its readers might not know: the Advance recently closed its Albany bureau. Since 2007, in fact, five newspapers have removed their correspondents from the statehouse. And the papers that still send reporters there have trimmed their bureaus to the bone.

Nationwide, the trend is the same. The number of full-time reporters in American state capitols has decreased 32 percent in the past six years, according to a study released last April by the American Journalism Review. Over 140 newspapers have reduced their statehouse staffs since 2003, and more than 50 have eliminated these staffs altogether.

So should we really be surprised when state lawmakers act in corrupt, brazen, or silly ways? The real surprise is that they don't do it more often. Or maybe we just don't know, because newspapers are no longer minding the store.

Remember, many of America's most notable journalists got their start by exposing malfeasance in state capitols. Modern investigative reporting dates to the 1880s, when Henry Demarest Lloyd showed how John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company bribed and intimidated state lawmakers. In Pennsylvania, Lloyd famously wrote, Standard Oil "has done everything with the legislature, except refine it."

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