Digital Outlets Help Fill Statehouse Ranks As Newspapers Retrench

NEW YORK -- The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news outlet launched in 2009, now boasts the largest statehouse bureau in the Lone Star State at 15 full-time staffers.

Capital New York, a four-year-old site that expanded in 2013 after being sold to Politico, now has five full-time reporters at the Capitol in Albany, the most of any outlet in the state.

Such digital expansion is one of the hopeful signs in a new study from the Pew Research Center, "America's Shifting Statehouse Press."

Newspapers continue to assign the most reporters to capitols across the country, accounting for 38 percent of 1,592 statehouse reporters nationwide (of whom 741 are assigned full-time). But the ranks of statehouse reporters, long providing a critical watchdog role, have diminished over the past decade amid newspaper layoffs, buyouts and closings.

Pew found that 164 statehouse jobs at newspapers have been lost since 2003, while "nontraditional" outlets -- including online news sites, nonprofits and ideological outlets -- currently employ 126 full-time statehouse reporters, accounting for about 17 percent of all full-time statehouse reporters in the country. Less than a third of U.S. newspapers now assign either a full-time or part-time reporter to the statehouse, according to the study. In Massachusetts, for instance, only 6 percent of newspapers "have any reporting presence at the statehouse."

Recent years have seen the launch of a number of news sites with a political bent and a focus on statehouse coverage. Pew found that ideological news organizations assign 53 reporters to statehouses nationwide, with 14 of the 33 outlets studied being owned by the conservative Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

But larger New York and Washington-based media outlets that have launched and expanded in the past decade, like The Huffington Post, Politico and BuzzFeed, don't assign reporters to state capitol buildings on any sustained basis. Neither do recent startups like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, or the ever-expanding Vice.

The newspaper industry, which traditionally covered statehouses, has retrenched during this same period amid advertising and circulation drops. As a result, some journalists fear that state governments aren't being held as accountable with fewer reporters digging into budget matters and legislation.

"I do think there's been a loss in general across the country, and that's very concerning to me," Patrick Marley, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel statehouse reporter, told Pew. "We have scads of reporters in Washington covering every bit of news that Congress makes. State legislators have more effect on people's daily lives. We need to have eyes on them, lots of eyes."

Read the full report here.