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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.

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Today, we look back on Lloyd as America's first "muckraker." But the term was not coined until 1906, by Theodore Roosevelt, who complained about journalists who "could look no way but downward" and scraped up "the filth of the floor." Here he took aim especially at David Graham Phillips, whose nine-part article on "Treason in the Senate" condemned the undue power of rich campaign contributors in Congress.

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But we often forget that Phillips's series also exposed corruption in state legislatures, which were still responsible for selecting US senators. As Phillips showed, large corporations paid off state lawmakers to choose senators who would be friendly to big business.

Phillips's articles helped spark a public campaign for the direct election of the US Senate, which took effect with a constitutional amendment in 1913.

It's hard to imagine a modern-day Lloyd or Phillips rampaging through American statehouses today, exposing greed and sloth, because the newspapers simply don't have the staff to conduct large-scale investigations there. And that's bad news for all of us — even for state officials, who need the press watchdogs as much as anybody else.

That's why Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz released a statement last year bemoaning the shrinking newspaper bureaus at her own statehouse. "A vibrant democracy is dependent on its citizens having access to information," Ms. Bysiewicz wrote. "As I push for ethics reform this session and think of the string of politicians that have betrayed the public trust, I cannot help but feel the people of Connecticut would be better served by the consistent daily coverage of a large capitol press corps."

So what can we do to revive it? Several statehouse journalists around the country have begun their own blogs, which can report on events that don't make it into print. Others are experimenting with e-mail and text alerts to get breaking news to wider audiences.

Still others are starting websites such as the Arizona Guardian, formed earlier this year by four laid-off local journalists. They have already broken several stories and lit a fire under competing news gatherers, who don't want to be beaten to the punch.

But the site plans to rely upon paid subscriptions, and it's unclear if that's a sustainable model in the long run. Other new digital outlets are seeking money from foundations, which are struggling themselves amid the current economic downturn.

Will any of these innovations stick? Nobody knows. But here's what we do know: Without more reporting from state capitols, most of us won't have a clue what our lawmakers are doing. So go ahead, laugh at the clowns in Albany. The real joke is on us.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," was published this month.

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