Capitol Weekly was conceived, in its latest incarnation, to be a community newspaper for the California political community. Way back in 2005, when my family took control of the paper from Ken Mandler, there was a shortage of information about the internal workings of the Capitol and the state government. We knew there was a readership for these stories, a hunger for a different kind of Capitol coverage.
Certain things have not changed in the five years since Capitol Weekly relaunched as a newspaper of California government and politics. The state still faces multi-billion dollar budget deficits with no end in sight. Sacramento remains as poisonously partisan as ever. Increasingly, self-funded candidates and political celebrities dominate our political landscape, while incumbents are reelected at an overwhelming clip.
But many things are radically different, both in politics and in the media world. In fact, the connection between the two, and the deterioration of both, is perhaps the most disturbing of the developments in the past five years.
Across the state, news coverage of the state Capitol is on the wane. State news bureaus have been reduced in size or eliminated all together. Coverage of state politics gets shorter shrift as ever-shrinking news holes for state news are filled by a depleted Capitol press corps. And it’s not just numbers we’ve lost, it’s experience. Some of the most experienced reporters in the state – people like Ed Mendel, Jake Henshaw, Bill Ainsworth and countless others – have moved on to other pursuits. Many of them were not even replaced when they left.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, term limits has taken hold in the Legislature, shifting power away from the Capitol and into the hands of paid advocates, lobbyists and consultants that fill the Capitol halls daily. Instead of experience in the hands of those who are elected to serve their constituents, it has moved to the hands of hired guns who are handsomely compensated to serve paying clients.
This trend was already under way in 2005 and was Capitol Weekly’s raison d’etre from Day One. We wanted to provide coverage we weren’t seeing other places. It was less than two years after the California Journal shuttered its doors and the online explosion of blogs and the like had not yet taken hold. When we started out five years ago, the only California political blog was written by Dan Weintraub. There was no FlashReport or CalBuzz, no Red County or California Progress Report.
But the rise of those sites and the decline of the traditional press corps illustrate another trend in Capitol coverage. Increasingly, we are enamored with partisan analysis and the quick quip. Heck, we’re guilty of some of that stuff ourselves.
But it’s not what drives us. Fundamentally, we have the same narcissistic engine driving us that motivates most journalists. We believe the work we’re doing is important. We believe that what happens in Sacramento, in the Capitol and in the even less scrutinized permanent government, matters. And we believe, fundamentally, that somebody should be paying attention to what is going on.
In the end, it is our job to convince people that what happens in Sacramento really does matter. It’s easy to cast a cynical eye toward all politicians. Approval ratings for the governor and Legislature reflect that cynicism runs deep among California voters. But our hope is that there is something in every issue of Capitol Weekly that still tells our readers something they didn’t know before, and that the information is more than just a simple “gotcha” story or a dismissive quip about some pol or another.
It hasn’t always worked out the way we planned, and it hasn’t always been easy. In case you haven’t heard, times aren’t exactly great for newspapers, and Capitol Weekly is not immune to some of the same economic strains that have impacted newspapers and other businesses over the last couple of years. Ideally, we would have an army of reporters to blanket the Capitol. There are still too many stories that deserve to be told that we simply don’t have the resources to tell.
But I am still amazed at the work we are able to produce with just a three-person newsroom. We also have a vibrant op-ed section that provides a forum for some of the myriad interest groups and citizens who have business before the state. In the newsroom, we look forward every Wednesday to receiving Dan Cariño’s latest political cartoon in our email inboxes. Cariño’s distinctive style and his slightly offbeat sense of humor have been an anchor in our paper since close to the very beginning, and I personally believe he’s the most talented political cartoonist in the state.
We’ve had our share of battles with politicians – whether it was breaking news about Don Perata’s efforts to get one of his own appointees, Jim Aldinger, off the Coastal Commission, or our confrontation with Rep. Laura Richardson who, apparently, only learned her house had been sold at a foreclosure auction after reading about it in Capitol Weekly. But we’ve also tried to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the most significant policies affecting our state and its citizens are made.
Politics isn’t always pretty, but it’s always fascinating. And we believe at Capitol Weekly that you don’t have to dumb it down to make it interesting to readers. While we know our core audience consists of “political insiders,” the best stories are the ones that reach beyond that core audience. Sometimes, “insider stories” are of interest to the general public. They just have to be told the right way.
Five years later, our core motivation remains the same. We still aim to tell the stories about California and its politics that are not being told elsewhere. These are stories that cannot be told in a four-paragraph blog post (though we do our share of that as well). They are textured stories about complicated subjects that have profound impacts on real people. And they matter. That is what motivates us. It is that fundamental belief, that journalist’s conceit, that we are doing important work telling stories about our state that need to be told.
And that’s exactly what we plan to keep on doing.