Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: TNT bucks trend, strengthens Statehouse coverage

The headline was cringe-worthy: “Pew study finds a sharp drop in reporters at statehouses.”

The Pew Research report last month found 1,592 reporters covering the country’s 50 state capitols. Of those, 741 cover statehouses full time. The rest pitch in during the legislative session, work the beat part time or serve as interns. Of the full-timers, 43 percent work for newspapers.

Newspapers provide the most statehouse reporters, but Pew says their numbers are down 35 percent since 2003. In 11 years, the country lost 164 full-time newspaper statehouse reporters. Fewer than one-third of U.S. daily newspapers now sends any reporter — full-time or part-time — to cover its state capitol.

Fewer full-time reporters means fewer eyeballs watching over the powers that be. But newspapers navigating through the recession faced difficult choices about where to focus their smaller reporting staffs. Some chose to concentrate on more local news at the expense of statehouse coverage.

Our state fares better than most with 30 reporters covering the Statehouse in Olympia. Washington ranks 19th among the states. That’s not bad given our state’s relatively short legislative sessions. Other states in session most or all of the year draw more full-time reporters.

Pew said Washington’s number includes:

•  12 full-timers.



•  6 session-only reporters.



•  6 part-timers.



•  5 interns.



•  1 “other.”



Of the 12 full-timers, we count seven from newspapers. That number is down from 10 in 2003. Two losses were from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which no longer has a newspaper.

As our readers know, the TNT also made difficult choices in recent years about where to focus our coverage. For us, the Statehouse remains a priority. We’ve even increased staffing in recent years.

First, we formed a joint bureau with our sister paper, The Olympian. Brad Shannon and Jordan Schrader provide stories for both papers. A new, less-formal partnership with The Seattle Times allows us to share stories with them as well.

We coordinate more closely with The Associated Press. When the governor releases his budget, for instance, we may let the AP write the general story, focus Schrader on the budget’s effect in Pierce County and have Shannon cover its effect on state workers.

We also hire a legislative intern from the University of Washington. And our columnist works in Olympia during the session.

In 2012, we added a full-time reporter to our Statehouse bureau. Melissa Santos writes stories and runs our Capital Update app, a new digital publication made up entirely of Statehouse news. More than 1,500 people downloaded the app during the 2014 session, spending large amounts of time reading breaking news, political pieces and editorial columns.

The TNT can’t cover every topic with this depth, but we count the Statehouse among our most important beats.

Ironically, the day after the Pew report came out, we learned that we’d lost a great TNT former statehouse reporter, Joe Turner. His friends and family are holding a memorial for him Sunday (Aug. 3). When Turner retired in 2009, he voiced concern about the loss of Statehouse reporting.

He also reminded us why it’s important to keep close eyes on government leaders in Olympia.

“These are not evil people,” he wrote in his farewell post on the Political Buzz blog. “They’re just public servants who sometimes can be self-serving. That’s why the press is supposed to be a watchdog. We’re supposed to find out what they’re doing and alert everyone.”

NEW SEAHAWKS BEAT WRITER

Just in time to kick off the season, we’ve hired Gregg Bell as our new Seattle Seahawks beat writer. Bell was director of writing for the University of Washington athletic department. Before that, he was a senior national sports writer for The Associated Press, working in its Seattle bureau. He also covered the Oakland Raiders and Athletics for The Sacramento Bee.

Bell is an Ohio native and a West Point graduate and holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

“Gregg brings a good deal of experience to the beat because he knows the NFL and the Seahawks from his time at the AP,” said TNT sports editor Darrin Beene. “Most importantly, he has a good feel for telling stories that give readers a sense of who the players really are.”

Bell will cover the Seahawks’ first exhibition game in Denver on Thursday night. His predecessor, Todd Dybas, has taken a position at the Washington Times.

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