When I first retired, I began casting around for projects I might do to occupy my newly-freed-up time. (I’m still looking, btw…) My youngest son wanted me to get credentialed as a reporter and focus my efforts on Indiana’s Statehouse, which he correctly noted is a gerrymandered, far-right mixture of self-dealing, arrogance, bad policy and general nuttiness.
It is, after all, a chamber that hasn’t come all that far since passing a bill to change the value of pi.
There hasn’t been decent reporting on the shenanigans of our legislature since Mary Beth Schneider retired from the Statehouse beat, back when the Indianapolis Star at least pretended to cover state and local government. But–although I certainly agree with my son that the lack of reporting on state government is a huge problem–I didn’t agree that I was the person to address that information deficit. (My kids don’t seem to understand just how limited my skills are, or how old and tired I am…)
That said, it appears that Indiana’s isn’t the only state legislature to be operating without scrutiny from media watchdogs, and there is a new effort to turn that around. A friend recently sent me a report from the Washington Post about a nonprofit news organization that has been formed to fill that gap.
With funding from foundations and a variety of donors, States Newsroom formed two years ago to attempt to fill a void in what many government watchdogs and civil-society experts believe is one of the biggest manifestations of the local journalism crisis: the dire shortage of reporters covering state government.
On Monday, States Newsroom will announce plans to nearly double its presence, from its current 25 states to about 40 over the next two and a half years. It will open its next five outlets in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky. It’s also launching “News from the States,” a new online clearinghouse to showcase all their affiliates’ reporting.
Each of the bureaus is independent, and most are managed by veteran journalists. The average staffs consist of four or five reporters. And importantly, each bureau allows other news organizations to republish its work for free.
“State government and politics and policy have the most impact on people’s lives and it’s covered the least,” said States Newsroom director and publisher Chris Fitzsimon. “That’s really why we exist.”
The number of newspaper reporters dedicated to covering statehouses has been declining for decades, dropping by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014 and outpacing overall newspaper job losses over that time, according to Pew Research Center survey. And that was before the more recent blows to the newspaper industry, with nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanishing between 2018 and early 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, even before the pandemic worsened their economic picture.
Can a nonprofit media organization survive financially? That’s the zillion-dollar question.
States Newsroom raised close to $10 million dollars in 2020. In the interests of transparency, it posts a list on its website of every donor who has contributed over $500–according to the article in the Post, the list currently includes individuals, foundations, and other entities like the Google News fund and a major union of public employees. A foundation established by Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who briefly entertained joining a bid to buy Tribune Publishing Company last year, gave an early $1 million dollar donation.
As the article noted, for many years smaller newspapers relied on wire services like the Associated Press to fill their pages with the kind of statehouse reporting that they didn’t have the personnel to produce themselves. But increasingly, small newspapers can’t afford to subscribe to the AP, and as the newsrooms of better-established papers have been emptied out by their rapacious corporate owners, those news organizations have simply lacked the wherewithal to cover state legislatures.
When I visited the States Newsroom website, I noted the absence of an Indiana operation. Maybe if a number of unhappy Hoosiers contribute, we can convince the project to add Indiana to its growing list of bureaus. After all, what’s our idiotic state motto? “Honest to Goodness, Indiana?”
Well, Honest to Goodness, we need a lot more light on our Indiana lawmakers!