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