Statehouse Reporters Share Info At Groundbreaking Conference
By Warren Epstein, Special to Stateline
DENVER -- One good way for statehouse reporters to engage and enlighten citizens affected by the policies they cover is to "make people mad" says Barbara Walsh of the Press-Herald, A Portland, Maine newspaper.
Walsh never forgot that bit of advice from one of her editors, and shared it with her peers during a recent conference for state government reporters in Denver.
Power to the States -- the official name of the gathering -- brought nearly 120 members of the news media from 34 states and the District of Columbia together last month to swap trade secrets, share insights and help improve the coverage of policy developments that directly affect people's lives.
The conference took place in an era where states are enjoying unparalleled power to shape critical policies such as welfare and healthcare reform, but many state capitol reporting staffs are being pruned by news organizations due to budgetary considerations.
The gathering was the brainchild of Genevieve Anton, a Colorado Springs Gazette statehouse reporter, and was subsidized by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Pew Center on the States, and the Pew Center For Civic Journalism, among other organizations.
In addition to Barbara Walsh, another journalist who addressed the three-day gathering was Lucy Morgan, state capitol bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting.
According to Morgan, the trait that separates average statehouse reporters from the best is an eye for detail. Be more observant, she challenged her colleagues, and pick up on the little things that can make a news story more interesting.
As an example, when lawmakers are meeting late into the night on important issue, "look for the legislator walking around in bedroom slippers," Morgan recommended.
A journalist whose powers of observation extend well beyond footwear, Morgan has a reputation of being a hard-nosed reporter who'll "cut your heart out, but she'll do it professionally," in the words of a source.
One of Morgan's coups was an expose of a secret weekend meeting of Florida legislators and powerful lobbyists in Key West. Tipped off about the confab and finding her usual sources mum, Morgan went through the state capitol in Tallahassee on the lookout for sunburned faces.
A trap many statehouse journalists fall into is producing coverage that's top-heavy with stuff about politics, says Tom Rosenstiel of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
His group released a study suggesting that state capitol reporters tend to give short shrift to important policy issues and the citizens most effected by them.
The study looked at statehouse coverage at the Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, St. Petersburg Times, Indianapolis Star, Dallas Morning News and Austin American Statesman during the final 60 days of legislative sessions in Colorado, Florida, Indiana and Texas.
Those organizations devoted most of their ink to politicians, the study found, followed by issues Americans say they care about -- education, environment and development, how lawmakers vote on issues before the legislature, transportation, legislative and executive relationships, gun control, crime, taxes and the functioning of state agencies.
Welfare reform and consumer issues each accounted for less than one percent of all stories published during the legislative session in the states surveyed, and agriculture didn't even make the list.
That was precisely the kind of feedback sought by Colorado Springs Gazette statehouse reporter Genevieve Anton, who conceived of "Power to the States" after trying, and failing, to find good training on covering the statehouse beat.
"When I started, I had no idea of how to cover this beat. I felt like I was tossed into this black hole" says Anton, who previously covered military issues for her newspaper.
Anton's idea for a conference came around the same time the Pew Charitable Trusts funded stateline.org, an online news service focusing on state-based innovation.
So Anton was able to enlist stateline.org's help in hosting Power to the States, which had panels of experts on such issues as Y2K computer readiness, health care and utility deregulation.
Also sponsoring Power to the States were the Colorado Springs Gazette, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Pew Center for Civic Journalism (PCCJ), Associated Press Managing Editors (APME), the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Metropolitan State College of Denver.
More transpired during the conference than just speeches on covering state policy, however. Participants took a broader look at the state of statehouse reporting today and how to improve it.
There were a number of suggestions on how statehouse reporters can do a better job of drawing readers into stories about public policy.
Jon Greenberg, a senior editor for New Hampshire Public Radio, told of using the Internet to punch up a story about taxes.
To lure listeners into a legislative debate over how to finance New Hampshire public schools, Greenberg and his colleagues developed a web site where citizens can type in their income, address and a few other variables to see how much they would be taxed under various legislative proposals.
Other conference highlights:
Brant Houston, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), urged statehouse reporters to extend their scrutiny beyond the legislature.
"There are thousands of nooks and crannies in state government that get no attention at all, and often they (contain) the best stories. Get everything you can about an agency; memos, minutes, the budget, the tax records, a list of key personnel," he said.
Houston said agency budgets are another good source of information, and with practice reporters can read them like a fortune teller reads tea leaves.
Power to the States took place within a few miles of Littleton, the Denver suburb where the Columbine High School massacre unfolded in April, so not surprisingly school violence was a topic at the conference.
Bill Woodward, former head of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, and other experts cautioned journalists not to exaggerate the extent of the school violence problem.
Tonya Aultman-Bettridge from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the biggest shortcoming of press coverage of teen violence is that it tends to look for a simple answers, mirroring the response of many lawmakers. "We're dealing with an extraordinarily complex issue. It's like heart disease. There's not one single solution," she said.
"People want something done and they want something done now," Aultman-Bettridge said. "Prevention doesn't work that way."
Information about teen violence and related legislation can be found at the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site.
Many conference participants felt the most valuable aspect of their 72 hours in Denver was an opportunity to connect with other journalists, during the first-ever major gathering of statehouse reporters.
Time was set aside for informal conversation during a conference luncheon, a dinner at Coors Field, Denver's major league baseball stadium, and on a bus tour of Denver's suburbs that focused on the issue of urban sprawl.
However, for John Aubuchon, a veteran statehouse reporter for Maryland Public TV, the biggest payoff of was a chance to take a crash course in story-telling from Mark Kramer, a Boston University journalism professor who has written for the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Outside Magazine.
Speaking to a packed house on the final day of the conference, Kramer stressed that "details, emotion, narrative" are the elements of writing that pull readers into news copy.
"Sight, sound, taste, smell," Kramer said. "Use enough details, but don't let them flop all over the place."