Statehouse Reporters Meet in Washington

 

Nearly 100 members of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors gathered in Washington last weekend to swap war stories and explore ways to provide their readers and viewers with better coverage of issues and elections.

Journalists attending the annual conference of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors (ACRE) heard from some of the leading authorities in the country on issues ranging from welfare and budget matters to politics.

A highlight of the conference was a luncheon address by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, who spoke about the difficulties of striking a balance in state spending in a time of decreased revenues.

ACRE members representing nearly every state were also treated to a lesson on the difficulties of covering political campaigns by well-known Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz. University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato offered some new ideas on how news organizations can do a better job of educating voters about issues and candidates.

The conference, which was co-sponsored by Stateline.org and the Pew Center on the States, began Friday with a riveting account by Maine resident Heidi Hart of her journey from being a down-and-out 16-year-old single mother on welfare to a college graduate and employed professional.

Hart, in an emotional presentation, spoke of her appreciation for an innovative welfare-to-work program that has already allowed her to pay back more in taxes to Maine than she received in state benefits.

The ACRE meeting also gave editors and reporters an opportunity to engage in some blunt discussions about what they do well and not so well in their coverage of the nation's statehouses. One exchange featured a debate on the reluctance of some news organizations to devote more time and resources to the coverage of political and government news because the public at times seems uninterested. Several top editors described that assumption as a myth.

"Readers hate murder, too," said John Vaskuhl of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "But they read about it a lot."

The editors stressed that good writing and thorough reporting can make otherwise dry stories a must-read, even to people who may be tuned out on politics and government.

"I believe the decision to commit fewer resources to statehouse coverage is a boneheaded decision," said Ed Jones of the Fredericksburg, Va. Free Lance-Star. Jones, the incoming president of the Associated Press' Managing Editors Association, said he intends to push for more extensive coverage of state government.

Reporters attending the conference were also treated to seminars on computer-assisted reporting, how to write more compelling and the importance of developing new strategies for covering issues and campaigns.

Hank Shaw is a free-lance reporter.

 
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