Nonprofit news organizations are emerging as an increasingly important source of coverage of the nation’s state capitols, where some of the most important issues in American life—including voting rights, abortion, and pandemic debates on masks and vaccine mandates—are playing out.
A Pew Research Center study released in April found that after years of decline, the total number of statehouse reporters has increased since 2014 by 11%, from 1,592 to 1,761.
Although newspaper reporters still make up the largest segment of statehouse journalists, their share of the nation’s total statehouse press corps has dropped from 38% to 25% since 2014, the last time the Center looked at statehouse coverage. Nonprofits now are the second-largest segment, accounting for 1 in 5 reporters.
But the overall increase masks a drop in the number of full-time reporters, who are often better equipped than part-timers to provide depth and context to coverage; the study found that more than half of reporters covering statehouse issues—52%—were part-timers, including students and interns. The Center discovered that newspapers nationally employed 448 reporters assigned to state government news, including 245 full-timers; the number of full-timers was down by about a third from 2014.
Katerina Eva Matsa, the Center’s associate director for journalism research and co-author of the study, says that the surprising finding for many observers may be that, whether full time or part time, student or professional, the number of “boots on the ground” in state capitol news coverage is up from eight years ago.
“Hearing the decline of newspaper newsrooms, I think a lot of people expected that to translate into fewer statehouse reporters,” Matsa says. “But so much more is happening. Students have made a great contribution, although their numbers can fluctuate from year to year. The contributions of nonprofit organizations is definitely a big story here. They have really increased their presence.”
The nonprofits all rely on a digital presence, the report says, and also reach their audiences through newsletters, and podcasts, and by publishing their stories in traditional print media outlets. The Center’s researchers also noted that nonprofit news organizations often focus on specific single topics such as immigration, education, the environment, or health care. Others explicitly function as watchdogs on state government.
Veteran statehouse reporters, as well as people who follow state issues, watch the coverage trends outlined in the Center’s report closely because of the role state governments play in the lives of Americans. Brad Bumsted, a reporter who has covered Pennsylvania state government since the late 1980s, mostly for newspapers, applauds the increase in journalists of all kinds assigned to capitol news in Harrisburg—where the ranks have grown from 41 to 47 reporters since 2014, according to the Center’s study. What’s significant to Bumsted is that the number of full-timers is up from 25 to 28, although he says that’s about half of the number who covered the state capitol in Harrisburg in the ‘80s.
Now employed full time by The Caucus, a watchdog publication of LNP Media Group Inc., in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Bumsted says that state news is often made in backrooms and corridors, not always in open legislative session. Getting that type of news, he says, can require a full-timer’s experience.
“The question is, what about the quality of the reporting? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a big advantage to work full time on a beat as complicated as the capitol. We have the largest full-time legislature in the nation, with 253 members of the House and Senate. The issues are complex, and it’s hard to just parachute in and do a story.”
In addition to newspapers and nonprofits, the study found that television stations employ 16% of the nation’s statehouse reporters; radio stations, 10%; university news outlets, 7%; and wire services (such as the Associated Press), 6%. The rest are in miscellaneous categories.
The Center’s researchers also looked at reporting at Native American reservations and land trusts and found that a total of 134 journalists were covering Tribal governments for 44 media outlets. There was no comparative data from 2014.
The 20% of the statehouse press corps representing nonprofits is an increase from 6% in 2014, and the growing number and strength of nonprofit newsrooms has made an impact in Pennsylvania, California, Texas, and elsewhere. The study identified 59 nonprofit outlets across the country that had at least one statehouse reporter; one of them, States Newsroom, launched in 2017 and now has affiliate outlets in 23 states.
Nonprofits have more than tripled their aggregate statehouse news employment, from 92 positions to 353, since 2014, the report says. Journalists for nonprofits now account for the largest percentage of capitol reporters in 10 states and the second-largest share in 17 states.
In Pennsylvania, the increase in full-time reporters covering state news has been led by Spotlight PA, an organization started in 2019 by four established news organizations—The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive in Harrisburg, and public radio station WITF, also in Harrisburg.
The nonprofit employs 18 people, including nine reporters and five editors. “We’re slated to grow to 23 by year’s end,” says Christopher Baxter, the editor and executive director.
Spotlight PA offers its content at no charge to 80 news partners, including most of the state’s newspapers—which sign an agreement to run the material in full and without added editing. Stories are also available free to the public on Spotlight PA’s website, and in its daily and weekly newsletters.
“All of the content is watchdog, accountability journalism,” says Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which he says “lit the spark” for Spotlight PA by providing initial funding and other assistance.
“Spotlight covers both the statehouse and statewide issues,” Friedlich says. “It covers not so much the tick-tock of legislative reporting as it does important statewide issues, such as the Keystone gas pipeline, conflicts of interest and expense account abuse by legislators, election integrity and redistricting, the opioid crisis, health care, and the legalization of marijuana.”
Newspapers traditionally have been funded largely by advertising, with additional revenue coming from paid subscriptions; online newspaper sites rely somewhat on advertising, but more so on subscriptions. As a nonprofit enterprise, Spotlight PA’s funding model is different: It’s financed in large part by 18 Pennsylvania foundations, led by Lenfest, which is based in Philadelphia and owns the Inquirer while also working to strengthen local journalism around the nation. Spotlight PA readers provided $330,000 in added support in 2021 by joining as members through an online “donate” button.
Friedlich says that what’s different about Spotlight PA from many nonprofit newsrooms is its effort to “marry” a digital news platform with the distribution networks of legacy news providers, such as print newspapers and public radio stations.
He adds that foundations and wealthy individuals from across the U.S. have asked him how they might use the Spotlight PA model in their own states. “We’re getting more and more requests for advice and assistance,” he says.
One thing the interested parties have in common, Friedlich says, is that “they understand that a lot of what affects people’s lives” is being decided not only in Washington, D.C., but in Harrisburg and 49 other state capitols.
“The battle for American democracy,” he says, “is being fought at the state level.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist and frequent contributor to Trust.
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