News

Angst in the Capitol press corps

One Friday night, eight newsies gathered at Brew It Up to drink beer and offer solace to one of their own–a veteran journalist, knowledgeable in the ways of state governance and Capitol chicanery, whose job was eliminated when his paper’s Sacramento bureau was shuttered after 37 years. “I’ll be taking the summer off,” Vic Pollard, formerly of the Bakersfield Californian, noted wryly.

Similar scenes, but with different names, different papers and varying degrees of angst and anger, have been played out across downtown Sacramento at Pyramid, Gallagher’s, Chops–even the dark and sinister Henry’s. In one fete punctuated by gallows humor and the vibes of an Irish wake, three San Francisco Chronicle journalists who took company buyouts were honored at the same time.

“He decided to go from writing long boring newspaper stories about prisons that nobody reads and don’t make any difference, to writing long boring reports about prisons that nobody reads and don’t make any difference,” former Chronicle colleague Lynda Gledhill quipped, reading from a staff-produced top-10 list of why the departing reporter, Mark Martin, was leaving to take a job with the Little Hoover Commission.

Gledhill herself had departed earlier, one of a parade of local reporters who left daily journalism to work for government. When told that Capitol Weekly was doing a story on the press corps, three people–two journalists and a political strategist–came up with the same observation: “Hey, I didn’t know you guys did obituaries.” Nobody laughed.

In the past month, at least nine Capitol journalists have left, either through buyouts or layoffs, a direct consequence of business reversals that already have hit the home offices where staffs are being savaged. The math is simple: Fewer or less experienced Capitol reporters mean less scrutiny of government.

Capitol journalists–sometimes plagued by a desire for a career change, problems with editors, a need for more money, better hours, a change of life, whatever–have long migrated from the Capitol bureaus. What makes the latest turnover different is the financial turmoil at the papers.

At the Chronicle, still swollen from the merger with the Examiner, there was a 100-person cut from a 400-member newsroom and more layoffs are likely. Two years ago, the Chronicle had 460 people. Its Sacramento bureau, meanwhile, went from seven to two.

The recently purchased San Jose Mercury News, in its third staff reduction in 18 months, laid off 40 staffers–a 17 percent cut. The cuts–seven months earlier 35 jobs were eliminated–bring the newsroom to 200 staffers, about half of what the paper had in 2000.

What does it mean for state political coverage when good reporters leave?

“What is the impact on democracy? That’s the real question. There’s an important function that doesn’t provide any revenue, and that’s the watchdog function. When newspapers go away, it’s not just the stories they generate. It’s the people in government who should fear exposure about their governing, and what effect the paper has on their behavior,” said Los Angeles Times bureau chief Virginia Ellis.

Dwindling numbers mean “the competition that was once there, is not,” she added. “You never want to be in the position where there is no competition. You don’t want just one voice, you want competition to keep you sharp,” added Ellis, whose own bureau suffered the loss of two staffers.

“The watchdog function is curtailed,” agreed A.G. Block, the former executive editor of the California Journal and now the director of the Public Affairs Journalism Program at UC Center. “There are still folks around, but there are fewer of them and they are stretched further. There are fewer eyes on the ball.”

That newspapers are struggling with reductions in circulation and advertising revenue is not breaking news. In April, six top California newspapers reported daily circulation drops–for the fifth consecutive period. The Los Angeles Times, the state’s largest paper, was down 4.4 percent to 815,000, the Mercury News 4.9 percent, the Sacramento Bee 4.8 percent, the Orange County Register 5 percent, and the San Diego Union-Tribune 6.5 percent during the week and 7.2 percent on Sunday. The stresses in Sacramento are the ripple effects of those losses.

They are losing fickle readers, especially younger readers, to the Web but also to TV, magazines, and specialty sites. A recent study by the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University noted that more than a fourth of teenagers don’t follow daily news at all, and that–to the surprise of many–twice as many teens and young adults are likely to get their news from television as from the Internet. Adult readership, too, is down.

“I stopped subscribing to the paper a couple of years ago, and my life seems to have gone on just fine,” said Sacramento political strategist Andrew Acosta. “I assume that what the newspapers are saying is true, but at the end of the day this becomes a problem in California political coverage. Newspapers have to invest in reporters who are paid well and who trust that they have a job. The first words out of their mouths should be, ‘How’s your day?’ not ‘Are you still employed?'”

In raw numbers, the Capitol bloodletting is deceptive–the swelling and contraction of the press corps is not uncommon. During Ronald Reagan’s second term, there were 77 credentialed Capitol journalists–print, radio, TV, camera people and specialty reporters. In 1986, there were 160. Ten years later, during Pete Wilson’s second term, it was back to 77. Now it’s 157.

“When Ronald Reagan was elected governor, the TV stations opened up bureaus here, and then with Jerry Brown, a lot of them stayed. It sort of diminished during George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, but there always has been an a market for personality,” said Bob Fairbanks, a former bureau chief for UPI and veteran reporter at the Los Angeles Times. With fewer reporters, he said, there will be more reliance on the wire services–at least initially.

“That’ll last about two weeks, and then there’ll be a big story, like the budget, and the editors will want their own people to cover the big state story,” added Fairbanks, now the editor of the Capitol Morning Report.

After the 2003 recall election, the interest in Arnold Schwarzenegger drove staffing levels. Coverage expanded, then contracted–changes that were driven as much by coverage priorities as by economics.

“In the initial burst of energy when Schwarzenegger came to town, the media was going to refocus attention on the Capitol. But that has totally turned into survival of the fittest,” said Steve Maviglio, a top strategist for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. “Fewer writers mean fewer stones turned.”

Real estate and automotive ads, the backbone of many papers, are down. Classified lineage is down, raided by Craigslist, among others. Web surfers, accustomed to free content, don’t like paying for the daily paper, which is getting ever thinner. “The papers are making money now, but Wall Street bets on the ‘come’ and it’s pretty clear that’s the problem,” said Jake Henshaw, the bureau chief for Gannett News Service and a 20-year veteran of Sacramento who reports for four California papers.

Even daily papers that aren’t losing money now fear their trajectory will drop over time as their internal projections show them flat-lining–and worse. It’s not that readers don’t like news. It’s just that they don’t necessarily want it in the form of newspapers, which are getting thinner.

Respected, traditional one-horse bureaus–the Riverside Press Enterprise, the Ventura County Star, the Stockton Record–appear to be going strong, as do the two-member San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service bureaus. Indeed, the latter two bureaus, which seem joined at the hip, are small islands of stability in a roiling, gloomy universe: Copley has had the same personnel–Bureau Chie
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Jim Sweeney and reporter Michael Gardner–for years. Similarly, the U-T’s Ed Mendel, the state’s premier budget writer, and partner Bill Ainsworth, are veterans, and before that worked years at other Capitol papers.

With 11 people, excluding columnists and photographers, the Sacramento Bee has the largest state Capitol presence. It also is the most stable of the major newspaper Capitol bureaus. Stable, too, is the bureau for the Associated Press, which covers general news, as well as politics. The office has eight people–a number that has changed little for the past 40 years.

“McClatchy does not have a culture of laying off people,” Bee bureau chief Dan Smith said. “There is stability built in. It is a conservative company. We don’t experience wild expansions in good times, and so far have not had to deal with dramatic reductions, other than through hiring freezes.

“It’s a troubling trend to see other bureaus lose that reporting power’ he added. “We like competition. It makes us sharper, better. Readers throughout the state depend on us, and reporters at other papers, to be watchdogs on government.”

And what’s in store?

“There’s going to be a whole shakeout over the next five to 10 years before the papers can find a financial model that can support journalism as we know it–print or not. Maybe it’s a combination of web, video and print on demand, available when I want to access it, not when you want to deliver it,” said Deborah Pacyna, a vice president at the Sacramento office of the Fleishman-Hillard communications firm.

Contact John Howard at john.howard@ capitolweekly.net


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