Making Room in the Statehouse Press Tent

 

In the mid-90s, a reporter from the Carolina Journal Online was briefly admitted and then ejected from the North Carolina statehouse press corps, which issues the passes. A legislator had complained that the news outlet's parent organization, the John Locke Foundation, had partisan conservative leanings and its primary purpose wasn't gathering news.

But the organization decided to drop the issue and instead cultivate a news-gathering niche that operates outside of the section of the House floor reserved for credentialed press. "The practical value of the credential just wasn't worth the potential blowback," says John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. "I just didn't have any interest in worsening the relationship with the press corps."

Since then, the definitions and distinctions governing who is and who isn't a statehouse reporter have only become fuzzier. Raleigh, a nexus for both technological innovators and politicos, is a natural place for new media to take hold. The dwindling of the statehouse press corps due to layoffs and budget cutbacks has helped spawn a range of new media innovations — both by the traditional news reporters left standing and by the host of alternative outlets and bloggers that are attempting to fill the void.

Across the country, traditional media, insider newsletters, opinionated observers and some new media start-ups covering state news are increasingly competing for the online audience. But even as the traditional news coverage changes, if not shrinks, these new products are providing Web visitors access to more information about state government than ever before. The challenge for consumers is finding credible information.

"The real trick for those of us in the capital 'N' news business is figuring out how to peacefully coexist with all of these new online outlets and bloggers," says Mark Binker, a statehouse reporter and blogger at the Greensboro News & Record and vice president of Capitolbeat, a national association of statehouse reporters and editors. "We want to embrace as many people as we can without endorsing people who are not playing the role of honest brokers. That has always been and is increasingly a thorny question for us."

And while Carolina Journal still isn't officially a part of the statehouse press corps in North Carolina, it has exploded into a constellation of online, print, radio and TV outlets to be reckoned with in state politics even as the ranks of the official North Carolina statehouse press corps have shrunk. Carolina Journal Online and its online articles, blogs and columns are now visited by 50,000 unique visitors each month, up from 22,950 visitors a year ago. The North Carolina Justice Center is trying to fill a similar niche on the left with its blog, Progressive Pulse. BlueNC , another liberal blog, hosts live-blogging forums with Democratic candidates, and has become an influential force in primary races.

Part of Carolina Journal's strategy, in fact, has been to hire as many newly unemployed journalists as possible. "If you want to replace the statehouse reporters that are going away, a good place to start is to hire the ones who have just lost their jobs," Hood says. "Having an opinion does not make you a journalist. Alternative media still requires a commitment to basic journalistic practices such as sourcing, balance and fairness. If you don't produce work that consistent with those practices, you're not going to gain a wide acceptance."

There were 10 full-time credentialed newspaper reporters covering the North Carolina state capitol as of the American Journalism Review's 2009 census of statehouse reporters, with five publications reporting a loss of reporters since the 2003 census. In comparison, Carolina Journal now has six full-time journalists, one almost full-time correspondent on contract and 12 freelancers at its disposal, in addition to think tank staffers from the John Locke Foundation who also feed content to the blogs.

The organization is attempting to expand its reach by offering its content free to community newspapers in far-flung parts of the state that can hardly afford to maintain their subscriptions to The Associated Press , let alone pay their own correspondents. According to Hood, 15 newspapers have expressed interest in featuring Carolina Journal content since the organization first made the offer a few months ago, and six newspapers have actually run stories.

The strategy is to expand the Carolina Journal's reach. "Replacing a veteran reporter whose work reached 150,000 readers with a blogger whose work reaches 1,500 readers is not a computation consistent with representative government," Hood says. "We've got to figure out a way to transmit the work of the new media outlets to a large number of people."

Old is new again

Not to be left behind, traditional news outlets in North Carolina are among the most sophisticated and influential users of "new media" tools such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook to report on state government, and are often followed religiously by political insiders. "Every politician in the state lives to get on Under the Dome ," the Raleigh News & Observer 's blog, says Leroy Towns , a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina and press secretary to former Kansas Governor Robert F. Bennett.  

As news outlets have cut back on the amount of space and air time devoted to coverage of state government, blogs and twitter have become important venues for statehouse reporting. They have also helped statehouse reporters prioritize their coverage by medium — using Twitter for run-of-the-mill updates on committee hearings and floor votes, for example — and pool the press corps' remaining firepower among competing outlets when the circumstances call for it. When legislators began holding final negotiations over this year's budget without giving proper advance public notice, for example, reporters tweeted to alert one another when they discovered the location of meetings.

Laura Leslie, capitol bureau chief of North Carolina Public Radio and president of Capitolbeat, notes that her blog, Isaac Hunter's Tavern , began as a fun side project but evolved into an important distribution tool. She now has 1,100 followers on twitter, and receives 20,000 blog hits on a month. Some of the blog items on Isaac Hunter's Tavern are follow-ups on stories Leslie has covered on the air. Others stand on their own, sometimes even serving to break news — when a story can't wait to be produced into a radio spot. And for true policy wonks or skeptics who want supporting documentation, Leslie's blog allows her to paint a fuller picture than she can on the air by providing raw audio, court documents, transcripts and detailed narrative explanations of how or why an event unfolded as it did.

Still, Leslie says, blogs are a supplement to rather than a replacement for more traditional stories. "I worry that in a sense our blogs are preaching to the choir, the people who already know a lot of this stuff," she says. "It's fun to write for people who love politics as much as you do, and that's what you get to do on a blog. But the broader public service aspect is kind of a grey area."

Journalism professor Towns notes that blogs give insiders a valuable peek inside the minds and notebooks of reporters such as Binker and Leslie. "[Isaac Hunter's Tavern] gives a real added perspective to politics in Raleigh," says Towns, who blogs about political communication at Talk Politics . "It adds some perspective and some viewpoint that you don't generally get in straight reporting."

Of course, not everyone is overjoyed by the new media evolution that the North Carolina press corps has been going through. Longtime statehouse reporter Dan Kane, who now serves on the News & Observer' s investigations team, is quick to point out that all of the time and effort spent blogging about state politics is being diverted from other reportorial endeavors. "These blogs are sort of overrated," he says. "We like to make people think that we're providing all of this instant news, but there are only a handful of outlets that are really doing that. I worry that blogs are becoming little more than repositories for press release journalism."

But John Robinson, News & Record editor, notes that the blogosphere has allowed his newspaper to make more efficient use of the lone statehouse reporter he has left, Mark Binker. Ten years ago, the newspaper had two reporters who would file an average of three or four stories a week between the two of them. Now, Robinson says, Binker still manages to file three stories a week while also posting three or four blog entries a day when the legislature is in session.

Still, says Robinson, blogs are no substitute for the statehouse reporting and statehouse reporters that are disappearing. "I want it in my newspaper. I used to get it in my newspaper and it's not there now," he says. But for young, political savvy news consumers with a lot of time to spend online, "The world is suddenly open to them, because there is so much more available. It really depends on what your news habit is."

 
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