News organizations missing out on statehouse coverage, longtime journalists say

The number of reporters covering statehouse news has decreased sharply while the complexity and volume of legislation continues to increase, and news organizations could be missing major stories because of this lower level of staffing.

Those were the sentiments of Mike Lawrence and Terry Ganey during a session with journalism students at SIU Carbondale. Lawrence was Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, former press secretary for Gov. Jim Edgar and former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. He first covered the Illinois General Assembly in 1967.

Reflecting on the years he spent covering the Illinois statehouse, Lawrence said, “I think it was exciting. It was like holding up a magnifying glass to human nature.”

Illinois newspapers used to each have Springfield bureaus with several people in each office. Nowadays, Lawrence said, the bureau chief is the bureau, and he or she is covering for more than one newspaper.

Ganey, the St. Louis editor of Gateway Journalism Review and a former investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, agreed with Lawrence.

“Statehouse reporting is the stepchild in reporting,” Ganey said. “The state capitals are located in smaller, out-of-the-way cities, which makes coverage more difficult to get.”

State legislation involves big decisions, which now go without the intense scrutiny media should provide. Ganey said a byproduct of this reduced level of coverage is that press releases issued by elected officials and interest groups are more likely to be taken at face value and used without investigation.

“Newspapers provide the meat and potatoes for state reporting,” Ganey said, but now newspaper reporters are also required to do more than write, and have shortened deadlines. The inability to provide in-depth analysis of issues is problematic.

Elected officials have greater ability to control the messages getting to constituents, Lawrence said. Social media plays a prominent role in this and allows politicians to disseminate information without media review or fact-checking.

The spring issue of Gateway Journalism Review features an assessment of statehouse coverage by Ganey. He traveled to Jefferson City, Mo., to delve deeper into the issue and to look at who is putting out what information about the current legislative session.

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