If there’s a bright spot in the generally depressing news about the decline in state capital bureau reporters, it’s that students are compensating for some of the professional staff cutbacks.
The Pew Research Center, in a recent study, found that students account for 14 percent (223 in all) of the overall statehouse reporting corps. Most students work at the statehouse part-time and for short tenures. The report found that less than half, 97, work for newspapers, television or radio stations, or wire services, while the other 126 work for outlets ranging from school newspapers to nonprofit news organizations.
The Pew report worked with data gathered by American Journalism Review between 1998 to 2009, which showed a drop in staffing at statehouses each year.
To gauge the loss of reporters through 2014, Pew Research used the AJR data on newspaper staffing and then accumulated its own numbers from 2014. Those papers lost a total of 164 full-time statehouse reporters—a decline of 35 percent—between 2003 and 2014. Pew said. That’s just slightly higher than the 30 percent decline in newsroom staffing overall found by the American Society of News Editors.
While it may be a stretch to conclude that students are taking up the slack left by the reduction in the professional capital reporting corps, it is certainly fair to say that the situation would be far worse without them.
“In this shifting statehouse news landscape, students may be compensating for some of the legacy reporting cutbacks,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.
Among the schools that have statehouse bureaus and reporters:
- Cronkite News Service Arizona State University
- Berkeley Summer Sessions/Graduate School of Journalism
- Illinois Issues (University of Illinois)
- State House File (Franklin (IN) College)
- University of Kansas
- Capital News Service (University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism)
- Diamondback (University of Maryland student newspaper)
- Boston University Statehouse Program
- Capital News Service (Michigan)
- State News (at Michigan State University)
- Missouri Digital News
- Columbia Missourian
- University of Montana Community News Service
Many schools have built capital coverage into the curriculum and have set up their own distribution networks. At the Cronkite School at Arizona State University, director Steve Elliott says his students’ work is distributed to 30 media clients in the state, as well as sometimes nationwide by the McClatchy-Tribune news service.
“We’re separate from the school newspaper; we have our own website,” he said. “The students learn a lot from proposing a good story idea, executing it well, getting the elements to tell the story well and getting immediate feedback when it’s published. It’s a good teaching tool but it’s also a lot of fun.”
The Cronkite program averages seven or eight reporters on any given day, and they are not always the same students. Some work only a couple of days a week, others up to five days.
Each program is different. According to Pew, the University of Montana provides a scholarship and college credit for one student to spend a legislative session in Helena. The student’s articles are syndicated to nearly 40 newspapers—mostly weeklies and small dailies that cannot afford to have their own full-time reporters at the capitol.
At the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, high-level undergraduates and graduate students work several days a week producing stories that are offered to subscribers under the banner of “Capital News Service.”
Karen Denny, a former McClatchy-Tribune News Service editor, who was recently named to head the program’s Annapolis bureau, said the key is looking for stories that the major news outlets don’t have the time or resources to cover.
“I think the best way for students to come at this is to follow issues rather than geographic districts or personalities – to really tackle the statewide issues that affect the most people,” Denny said.
The Maryland program takes students in both the spring (when the legislature is in session) and in the fall (when it is not). Each time of year offers different challenges to the student journalists, who are both undergraduate and graduate students. In both situations, Denny said, sticking to issue beats works. “You have to come at it more globally in order to attract the most readers and get the most bang for your buck in one semester,” she said.
In Arizona, Elliott said the service absolutely fills a niche in capital reporting, trying to work within gaps left by big media. “Our strategy has been … to make our best guess on any given day on what the AP or the (Arizona) Republic are covering and try to add to the pool of news out there,” he said. But he noted the service also has many weeklies as clients and that changes the tenor of what it covers.
“Are we filling a need? Yes,” he said. “What we are filling is sometimes what folks didn’t know was there.”