California is perhaps the most significant state in the union both culturally and economically. One in every eight Americans lives here. In 2012, California’s GDP was $1.9 trillion — roughly the same size as that of Italy and Russia. If we were a nation, we’d consistently be in the top-10 largest economies in the world. And the state’s capital, Sacramento, is one of the largest governments in the nation outside of Washington, D.C., often responsible for exporting good and often bad policy ideas to other states.
One would think with such importance that reporters and news organizations would have in place an incredibly large presence to cover the comings and goings of lawmakers and agencies in Sacramento. Yet, disconcertingly, the opposite is true.
In fact, the number of reporters covering state government is at a startling low. And a recent Pew study shows that number will likely continue to decline.
According to the study, national numbers of reporters covering state legislatures has dropped more than 35 percent since 2003, outpacing the overall drop in journalists from all fields. The Sacramento Bee, the newspaper of the capitol, has cut its state government reporting staff by almost half. The same thing happened at the L.A. Times. Last December, Southern California Public Radio announced it would close its Sacramento news bureau and similarly, last August, ABC News announced the closing of its broadcast presence in the capitol.
The Pew study also exposed huge gaps in newspapers covering state capitols — only 30 percent of newspapers polled cover their state government at all. Which means entire cities or regions read the news every day and see no significant legislative coverage. News stations are reducing the time the assigned reporters even spend on covering government. Only half of reporters assigned to cover state government do so full-time, and 15 percent of those assigned are student interns. If news organizations are not adequately reporting on how our state leaders are spending tax dollars and making decisions on our behalf, who will?
What makes our situation in California worse is how we compare based on the length of our legislative sessions. California is one of just five states with a 12-month legislative session. Texas, the state with the most reporters, and full-time reporters, assigned to the state government, has an average legislative session length of under 5 months. Among states with a year-long legislative calendar, California has a significantly higher percentage of part-time reporters.
It’s not as if the Legislature isn’t giving reporters plenty to keep an eye on. In 2013, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to opening government, gave our state Legislature a “D” grade. Important details about legislation, committee assignments and votes weren’t available anywhere on the state’s website. The report showed it was nearly impossible to tell what was going on in our own government based on what they report themselves.
Despite ongoing scandals and ethics violations, a significant number of legislators in Sacramento have backed away from passing comprehensive ethics reform. And the Legislature adjourned for recess earlier this year without touching the most pressing issue on its agenda: A reformed water bond agreement that has been awaiting approval since former Governor Schwarzenegger helped draft the legislation five years ago. If there were more coverage of Sacramento, would legislators move faster on legislation like this? I’d like to think so.
Heading into the November election, we’re about to send a lot of new leaders to make decisions for us. And there are decisions of great consequence, from education funding, to insurance premiums, to drought preparedness, to business and regulatory policies, at stake. Citizens need to know what politicians and influencers are doing and saying in Sacramento to make informed decisions. And a vibrant press corps is essential to providing such information.
Cross-posted at CalWatchDog.