Nonprofit news outlets are successfully reversing the atrophying of statehouse reporting, more than tripling their numbers of reporters covering state capitols in 2022 and filling gaps left behind by legacy commercial outlets.
At a time when newsrooms nationwide are laying off journalists and shrinking their coverage areas, the total number of journalists covering state capitols has surprisingly increased over the past eight years, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center in a long-awaited update to its 2014 report on trends in statehouse coverage. The report was supported by Arnold Ventures. The growth in the statehouse corps across the U.S. is due in large part to the emergence of new nonprofit news outlets committed to statehouse reporting, Pew Research Center found.
“Nonprofit news outlets have moved strongly into statehouse reporting,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Center. “This shift marks at least a partial changing of the guard, with nonprofit news dramatically growing its footprint in this space as newspapers have cut back.”
Coverage of state capitols has become more urgent and critical in recent years as states increasingly pursue ambitious policy reforms and state lawmakers take aim at sweeping national problems.
Pew Research Center notes that state capitols have become the “epicenter of the nation’s key public policy debates,” with legislative action targeted toward some of the most pressing issues of our time, including voting rights, health care affordability, redistricting fights, criminal justice reforms, measures to mitigate gun violence, and provisions altering public education and higher education.
Long referred to as the laboratories for public policy, states have sharpened their policy initiatives in recent years to enact action that spurs broader change beyond state borders. For example, in a growing number of cases, states have joined together in litigation to force a change in federal policy. (The number of multistate lawsuits exploded from 30 in President Reagan’s administration to 126 under President Trump’s administration, with litigation addressing some of the most significant federal policies, including access to health care, immigration, climate change, and student loans, among others).
The growing influence of state lawmakers in shaping policy nationwide comes at a time when cutbacks by newsrooms nationwide have left fewer resources available to adequately cover the government. Since 2004, newspapers across the U.S. have lost 57% of their newsroom employees. Meanwhile, local and state governments have grown more powerful and expansive, with spending growing 29 percent in the same time period.
Fewer reporters providing accountability journalism at a time of exponential growth in government has forced many journalists to stretch their attention covering multiple beats (the average local reporter now covers 10 units of government, according to a report by Steve Waldman, president and co-Founder of Report for America.
Increase in the total number of statehouse reporters since 2014
At the statehouse level, nonprofit news outlets are carrying a disproportionately high share of the weight, according to the new Pew Research Center report. Despite employing a relatively small portion of the nation’s ranks of journalists, nonprofit reporters now constitute 20% of the statehouse corps. (They constituted just 6% of the corps in 2014). The report shows that the nonprofit statehouse corps is rapidly catching up to newspapers, which constitute 25% of the state’s press.
In total, there are now 353 journalists employed by nonprofits covering state capitols, or more than three times the 92 that covered statehouses in 2014. Newspapers remain the biggest employer of statehouse reporters, but their statehouse staffing has tumbled 26% in the same time period while nonprofit news has deepened its presence.
Nonprofits’ impact on the statehouse corps is more acute in some states than others, the Center notes. In 10 states, nonprofit statehouse reporters make up the largest portion of the statehouse press; they are the second largest in 17 additional states.
Pew Research Center developed its analysis by conducting a census of statehouse reporters, based on self-reported data, in all 50 states; holding interviews with reporters, legislative staff, newsroom editors, and industry experts; and conducting a separate analysis of reporters covering tribal governments in Native American communities.
In addition to documenting the total numbers of journalists providing watchdog reporting of state legislatures, the Center’s report also examined ways in which the pandemic has reshaped journalistic access to state capitols and transformed their coverage. Shutdowns of capitol buildings and COVID-19 outbreaks in state legislatures spurred some expanded use of technology to cover sessions, including more extensive live video feeds of meetings and sessions to allow the public continued access to the proceedings. Pennsylvania, for example, livestreamed every Senate session and nearly ever committee hearing — more than 300 meetings total — in 2021, according to the report.
This expanded access to video was applauded by some reporters interviewed by Pew Research Center, but others lamented the limited face-to-face interactions they’ve been able to have with lawmakers during the pandemic, making it difficult to build relationships.