The Capitol Press Corpse

Is it really time to pronounce the body? Or is the slimmed-down way we report on state government not nearly as bad as the Austin worrywarts would have you believe?

January 2008By Comments

Perhaps the best place to start is with Thomas Jefferson. Not his famous statement about the importance of a free press as a government watchdog—“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”—but rather two statements that, in all likelihood, were more representative of his true sentiments: “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it” and “The advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper.”

Politicians don’t like scrutiny. They don’t like criticism; nobody does (even the sainted Jefferson didn’t). There are countries in the world where scrutiny does not occur because political leaders can punish it—Russia, Cuba, China—and there are places where scrutiny does not occur because the media are voluntarily derelict in their duty. Unfortunately, some of these places are in Texas: Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen. The Freedom Newspapers chain shut down its Capitol bureau, which served all three papers, in November, and the Hearst bureau, already a combined operation of the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle bureaus, saw its staff of eight reduced by two. The public took little notice of these events, but the Austin media community treated them as deaths in the family—the latest misfortune to befall the incredible shrinking Capitol press corps.

It is my intention to engage in as little hand-wringing as possible over these events, so I will let the American Journalism Review do it for me. Nearly ten years ago, the AJR ran a piece titled “Missing the Story at the Statehouse.” The gist of the argument was that what’s happening in Texas today was happening everywhere: “Coverage of state government is in steep decline. In capital press rooms around the country, there are more and more empty desks and silent phones. Bureaus are shrinking, reporters are younger and less experienced, stories get less space and poorer play, and all too frequently editors just don’t care. At the same time, state governments have more power and more money than ever before. Their tentacles reach into every household and business. Everyone—political parties, academics, trade organizations, labor unions, corporations—has discovered this. Everyone, that is, except the press.”

What the AJR’s story itself missed—maybe it wasn’t so clear ten years ago—is that the decline in coverage of state government isn’t a journalism story, it’s a business story: the need to cut costs. I don’t think Freedom Newspapers closed its bureau because ignorant editors thought that state government didn’t matter. They did so in response to geological upheavals in the media industry. Anyone with a computer knows that the newspapers’ monopoly on local advertising has been broken, that readers of print media are growing older, that advertisers who want to make their pitches to the young and the affluent believe the best way to reach them is online rather than through print. Advertisers haven’t yet figured out how to do this efficiently, and the old media haven’t yet figured out how to use the new media to bring in enough revenue, and until both of these things happen, newspapers in particular will find themselves in a financial bind.

All this was unimaginable when I first started working in the Capitol, as a part-time staffer in the House of Representatives, back in 1967. Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio were multinewspaper towns. The big-city papers had large bureaus headed by veteran newsmen. The AP and UPI had a substantial presence, and a former Houston Press (a Scripps Howard paper, not the current alternative newspaper of the same name) reporter named Stuart Long had his own news service, which sent stories to small-town papers. Even so, this was not a golden age of Texas political journalism. The papers were aligned with the conservative Democratic political and business establishment that ran the state. The coverage wasn’t very ambitious, except for that of governor’s races and the occasional scandal. The editorial pages espoused the orthodoxy of the day. For the most part it was who-what-when-where journalism, although the Houston Post, under the direction of future lieutenant governor Bill Hobby, started doing some serious environmental reporting after aghast federal officials described the Houston Ship Channel as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” When I took a job in the Senate in 1968, I began to see how interesting Texas politics was. But you wouldn’t have known it from reading the papers.

Things began to change in 1969, when the Times Mirror Corporation, then the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, bought the Dallas Times Herald. Soon, Texas would have a newspaper with outsized ambition and national-caliber leadership that wasn’t tied to the political pooh-bahs of the state. The Times Herald did not live up to its promise overnight, but by 1975 it had forced the other papers to raise the level of their game. This was the beginning of the golden age. I like to think that Texas Monthly, which started in 1973 (I signed on a year later), had something to do with it too. The Times Herald would wage a long, costly, and ultimately losing war against the Dallas Morning News, but it passed into oblivion having changed Texas political journalism for the better.

The golden age still retained its glitter in 1991. Wayne Slater, the senior political writer for the Morning News, recently showed me his directory of the members of the Capitol press corps from that year. I counted sixteen newspaper bureaus, plus the Long News Service, and seven TV stations for a total of 66 journalists. The Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle had the biggest bureaus, with eight reporters each; AP had seven (including two photographers); and the Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram were next, with six each. Today’s press corps is roughly half that size, and it’s exclusively print; TV reporters—except for those from local Austin stations—abandoned the Capitol long ago.

Does the shrinking of the press corps matter? Absolutely. It’s the boots-on-the-ground principle. The more troops you have, and the more visible they are, the more the bad guys fear you and the less likely they are to do mischief. (Slater remembers when a colleague happened to walk through the Senate at a propitious moment. He came back to the office and said, “Some guy is handing out checks on the Senate floor.” It was Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, the chicken magnate. The checks were for $10,000, and the “payable to” line was thoughtfully left blank; his objective, which was not successful, was to pass legislation favored by business interests that weakened workers’ compensation laws. The resulting story led to the passage of a major ethics bill in 1991.) The large bureaus allowed for beat reporting, so the big papers had reporters who specialized in covering the regulatory agencies that oversaw prisons, utilities, and insurance. The presence of reporters at public meetings has a chilling effect on those who would do public harm. That presence is irregular at best today; the only executive agencies that receive consistent coverage are the State Board of Education and the Texas Department of Transportation.

But the press corps is not the only source of political news for interested readers. Three online newsletters—the Quorum Report, Texas Weekly, and Capitol Inside—are available by subscription. More and more bloggers (a group to which I now belong) are focusing on state politics, with mixed results. I resisted becoming a blogger at first, being an MSM (mainstream media) snob, but I have come to love it. For years I dealt with the frustration of writing for a medium in which available space was finite and publication occurred once a month. A lot of what I knew just died inside my head. With a blog, I can get stories into circulation instantly, and I can write them in a way that mixes reporting and opinion. The world has changed, and much of the change is for the better. But not all of it. As I heard the former political director of ABC News, Mark Halperin, lament during a speech in Austin recently, “Nobody in this business knows where their revenue will come from in ten years.”

That’s why the fate of the Capitol press corps is still, fundamentally, a business story. I called Jeff Cohen, the editor of the Chronicle, to ask him about the reduction in the paper’s coverage, including the layoffs at the Hearst bureau. “I don’t feel bad about having only six reporters covering the Capitol,” he said. “Texas Monthly only has one in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city. The name of this newspaper is the Houston Chronicle, not the ‘Austin Chronicle.’ We often put Austin stories on the front page in session and out of session when they relate to the leadership or they involve watchdog reporting.” A lot of political stories, he said, can be covered with local reporters, such as a recent piece on the unfulfilled promise of electric deregulation. He acknowledged the financial pressures newspapers face: “Advertisers are unsure about where to spend their dollars in a fragmented media marketplace. That will resolve itself eventually, but in the meantime there’s a pressure to cut costs.”

In the long term, my concern, like Jefferson’s, is government without newspapers. How will people in Brownsville and Harlingen and McAllen know what they’re not reading about what’s happening in state government? They won’t. How will Speaker Tom Craddick’s claims to absolute power affect legislative races around the state if the media don’t remind the public of the controversy? Beyond these questions lies another: Will there still be newspapers—or newspaper readers—in the digital age?

Jeff Cohen says yes. “Chronicle home delivery is up,” he told me. “We’ve sold more college subscriptions in Austin, College Station, and Waco in each of the last three years. As long as there are informed and educated readers, there will be a place for newspapers.” For unselfish reasons—and selfish ones—let’s hope he’s right.

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