State Government Reporters Conference Set For Denver This Fall
By Genevieve Anton, Special to Stateline
DENVER -- Statehouse reporters are a unique journalistic breed.
They work in an isolated world of arcane rules and inflated egos, scrambling to keep up with the grueling pace of lawmaking while absorbing a daunting array of issues. It's an art most reporters learn on the fly with the help of colleagues or a kindly insider.
Now there's a way for newcomers to shorten the learning curve and veterans to explore fresh approaches to the demanding political beat.
"Power to the States: A Conference on Reporting State Government," is designed to help statehouse reporters and editors share innovative reporting techniques, develop a deeper grasp of specific issues and make policy stories smart, compelling and relevant.
This national conference, which is being co-sponsored by stateline.org, will be held in Denver, Colo. on Oct 7 -10, 1999.
who has covered the Wisconsin Statehouse since 1988.
"I believe it takes about two years for a newly minted statehouse reporter to sort through the sticky goo of capitol personalities, issues, special-interest lobbyists ...this year's cast of governor 'wannabes' and campaign-finance gifts," he said. "The goal of a conference should be to cut this down to less than a year, or at least give signposts."Despite a dramatic shift of power and money from Washington, D.C., to state capitols, recent studies have found that statehouse reporters often find it difficult to engage their readers or convince their editors that a legislative story is worth covering.
Some seasoned hands believe part of the problem is stories that dwell on politics and process, rather than how what happens under the capitol dome impacts people's lives.
"The hardest thing is to resist being a junkie who writes for legislative insiders instead of the public," said Norma Love, Associated Press Bureau Chief in Concord, N.H. "You have to go after the big picture, rather than inundate your readers with blow-by-blow details that are so boring and mind-numbing they turn the page."
At the Denver conference, reporters will be exposed to different ways of telling news that have worked for other statehouse bureaus - from civic journalism to issue-based coverage to investigative and computer-assisted reporting.
There are plenty of workshops available to journalists, but most statehouse reporters say the majority are either too broad to apply to their work or too narrowly focused on a single issue. What they need is a program specifically designed for their beat.
"Being a statehouse reporter is a unique calling," said Rob Gunnison, Sacramento Bureau Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. Although the process and personalities are different in every capitol, he said, some things cut across state lines.
"There's a lot to be learned about the culture of government and the techniques of covering it that is universal - and that we can share," Gunnison said. reporters to make the shift to Florida's statehouse, where there are 3,000 registered lobbyists, 160 legislators and hundreds of issues that they've never seen on any other beat.
"Almost everybody comes into it looking like deer caught in the headlights, they can't function at all," said the Tallahassee bureau chief. "They may think they know a lot about this state already, but they find themselves swamped with the whole spectrum of issues."
If there's one thing any statehouse reporter needs, neophyte or not, it's an inside track on what's happening elsewhere in the country that might end up in their own backyard, she said.
"I want my reporters to get a look at issues that are going to get hot - or that everybody thinks are going to get hot," Morgan said. "It's very intimidating to walk into a hearing on an issue when you don't have a clue what it's about. Things like insurance, land use and public utilities tend to scare reporters away because they're afraid they'll sound stupid."
While experience creates confidence, it also can breed complacency. The sheer volume of news and pressing deadlines during a legislative session sometimes push reporters toward a stock version of stories that look the same in every newspaper.
"I find it difficult to break away from the pack," said Dean Olsen, a reporter for Copley Illinois Newspapers in Springfield who just started last January. "It's a struggle to just keep up with the pace of work, get a handle on the issues and put things in perspective for readers when you don't have a lot of time and space."
With more than two dozens full-time print and broadcast reporters in the Illinois Statehouse press corps, breaking news on a consistent basis is tough for newcomers.
"People like myself need analytical story ideas and aggressive tactics to make up for the lack of sources, which take so much time to develop," he said.
Intense competition isn't the problem for Chuck Johnson, statehouse bureau chief for Lee Newspapers of Montana, whose staff writes for all but one major newspaper in the state. Rather it is lack of time during a 90-day session that crashes through every other year spewing out more than 1,000 bills.
"You always seem to be scrambling for information and sources, developing background material on the fly," Johnson said.
His staff has tried computer assisted reporting, but most just never seem to find the time to do it. Too many great investigative ideas are geared toward big newspapers with lots of staff who they can cut loose for a month or a year, said Johnson, who wants "quick and dirty ways" to do the kind of compelling spot or weekend stories that readers notice.
The National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) will conduct a series of workshops and drop-in demonstrations at the conference with real-life examples of how data bases can save you time and headaches - on everything from analyzing the budget to keeping tabs on government agencies.
Other workshops will expose conference participants to leading experts on a range of issues atop the policy agenda in most state capitals, including education restructuring, healthcare and welfare reform.
Joining stateline.org as conference co-sponsors are the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.
You can register for the conference by clicking on http://stateline.org/denver.