By Jason Stverak
After the Nov. 4 elections, the post mortems and assessments rolled out. Pundits played reporters and reporters played pundits, all trying to squeeze in their say about why the Republican Party dominated or why a few Democratic candidates bucked the trend.
Playing Monday morning quarterback, however, takes much less effort than the important work of staying on task, investigating and reporting on the people’s choices after they take office early next year. Unfortunately, fewer reporters than ever cover the day- to-day work of elected officials, especially in state legislatures.
FILLING THE GAP: Statehouse reporting has become more important than ever with the immense growth of government power and significance.
According to a Pew study the nation’s statehouse media corps, including radio, television, online, and “legacy” newspaper reporters, dropped by more than one-third between 2003 and 2014. This slightly outpaced the overall drop in the number of full-time reporters.
Fortunately, a new media landscape is developing to fill the gaps left as newspapers lay off their investigators.
College newspaper reporters increasingly have left the quad to go cover the real centers of power in state universities — the statehouse. Many come from academic backgrounds in political science, economics, history, public policy and others. Their knowledge can help make up for lack of experience and fewer sources.
Nonprofit media organizations, such as Watchdog.org, not only have focused on investigative journalism at the state level, but have hired many of the veterans dropped by newspapers. Nontraditional outlets such as ours now employ 17 percent of full-time statehouse reporters, as well as uncounted freelancers and stringers.
Meanwhile, statehouse significance has grown immensely. Justice Louis Brandeis once called them “laboratories of democracy.” As the federal government has grown in power and significance in daily lives, how states cooperate with or fight that influence becomes more important.
Without reporters present to investigate and chronicle, voters don’t get a chance to learn what their tax dollars really support. No one is held accountable.
Social media offers unparalleled opportunity for reporters to find out what their audiences’ concerns are, while gaining crucial information and story ideas. It helps make everyday citizens an important part of the process of gathering the facts and blowing the whistle on government malfeasance.
Of course, average citizens should make their voices heard directly — not only through letters to the editor, but also through their own blogs and social media presence. Concerned citizens simply sharing an important and well-reported news story advances the cause of transparency immeasurably. It gets news to people who may otherwise not pick up a newspaper or go to a local news site.
The digital age gives everyone an opportunity and a responsibility to take part in the process. To foster better, more responsible government, we’ll all have to work together to promote transparency and demand accountability.