DENVER -- Over the past year or so, there's been a lot of hand wringing over the state of statehouse reporting.
Scathing critiques of the way the press covers state politics have appeared in everything from the American Journalism Review to Governing Magazine. They blame shrinking bureaus, less space and attention devoted to statehouse stories and a discouraging lack of commitment by news media management toward improving government coverage.
But there are encouraging signs that the situation is turning around.
New studies show reporting ranks are up in almost half the statehouses.
Research organizations such as the Pew Center on the States, the parent organization of stateline.org have been created to help state government reporters and raise awareness of innovative public policies.
And the first national conference for statehouse reporters and editors, to be held in Denver Oct. 9-11, is a sellout, reflecting a keen interest by journalists -- and the newspapers or broadcast outlets that sent them -- in raising the level of their work.
"Power to the States: A Conference for State Government Reporters," was filled to capacity by the end of August with a broad representation of participants from 34 states and the District of Columbia.
Participants will spend three days soaking in 25 different sessions staffed by more than 50 policy experts, academic researchers and veteran journalists.
This groundbreaking gathering of journalists who specialize in covering state politics also will serve as a springboard for launching a national association for their professional development.
The idea for a national conference - now called Power to the States - was initiated a year ago this month by the Colorado Springs Gazette, which has bolstered its Denver bureau in recent years as the newspaper sought to elevate its political coverage.
The effort was quickly embraced by several prestigious organizations concerned with the declining coverage of state government.
Pew Center on the States, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, agreed to help support and coordinate the program as part of its mission to help journalists grasp and explain highly complex policy issues.
The Pew Center for Civic Journalism also helped with funding, and will provide a full morning of panels on Friday that will offer advice and real-life examples of how the news media can engage readers and make policy issues hit home.
For example, a media project in Idaho compared runaway state prison spending to falling higher education spending, while two Maine newspapers calculated the cost, in fiscal and human terms, of alcohol abuse and explained how the state fosters such abuse.
The afternoon will be dedicated to hard-ball investigative sessions lead by Brant Houston, director of Investigative Reporters and Editors/NICAR, another conference sponsor who will offer hands-on computer-assisted reporting workshops and demonstrations throughout the weekend.
The entire day Saturday will be spent exploring a vast range of public policy issues that statehouse reporters need to understand to do their jobs well. Participants can choose between timely topics such as youth violence, redistricting and taxing internet sales, or find out the latest on perennial issues including education reform, health care and growth.
In-depth discussion of these issues will be lead by more than 40 top-notch journalists, researchers and policy experts, including staffers from the National Conference of State Legislatures. This non-partisan legislative research organization is also a sponsor.
On Sunday the conference will wrap up with writing tips from one of journalism's best story tellers, Mark Kramer of Boston University, and advice from three outstanding reporters from the St. Petersburg Times, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Orange County Register on how to break from the pack and plan creative approaches to a legislative session.
A special NICAR session on Sunday afternoon on campaign finance proved so popular that the class had to be doubled. This was made possible by the School of Journalism at Metropolitan State College of Denver, a sponsor which generously provided the needed space and computers.
Additional funding for the conference is being provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Maryland that strives to provide data and analysis of critical issues affecting disadvantaged children and families.
Most of the sessions will be recorded on videotape. A professional journalist working with a team of note-takers will prepare a summary that will be printed and distributed after the conference.