Under the dome: As professional news outlets vacate state capitols because of budget constraints, student journalists move in to fill the gap

When Jessica Boehm interviewed a state senator for Arizona State University’s Cronkite News for the first time, she worried about saying the wrong thing or asking a question she shouldn’t ask.

Researching bills and interviewing lawmakers weren’t tough tasks, she said, but “knowing you were talking to someone that wielded a lot of power and probably didn’t want to talk to you, that was really intimidating.”

Boehm reported on the state’s spending transparency, bills on a texting-and-driving ban and off-highway vehicle enforcement during Arizona’s 2013 legislative session for Cronkite News, a student-produced news organization with a wire service that serves about 30 print, broadcast and web outlets and a 30-minute nightly news broadcast for the local PBS station.

Boehm spent eight months co-writing a story for News21, a special projects arm of the Cronkite School of Journalism, that compared Arizona and Connecticut’s gun legislation after shootings in both states — the 2011 Tucson, Az., shooting that killed six people and injured Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 students and six teachers.

The Washington Post published the story in August 2014. She said it took most of the semester at the statehouse to get comfortable interviewing lawmakers, but after the experience she is now able to “ask what I need to ask and not need to sugarcoat anything.”

As the number of professional reporters in statehouses plummets, Boehm and hundreds of other student journalists across the country provide coverage of state legislatures and agencies to readers, listeners and viewers. In four states, student journalists outnumber journalists from professional outlets assigned to the statehouse full-time, where they ensure citizens have access to information about how the state spends their tax dollars and decisions on education, criminal justice and safety regulations.

Steve Elliott, director of digital news at Cronkite News, said citizens need to understand how elected officials spend public money so they can elect someone else the next election or contact the legislator to share their concerns about spending or about legislation.

“I do think it helps keep the lawmakers honest to know that somebody is watching on behalf of the public,” Elliott said.

In some states, students outnumber pros

A 2014 Pew Research Center study, “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” found that one in seven statehouse reporters are students. Media outlets employ 223 students — mostly temporary or part-time — and 97 students work for newspapers, television, radio or a wire service. The other 126 students work for nonprofits, student newspapers or other organizations.

The report showed a 35 percent decrease across the nation’s statehouse reporters between 2003 and 2014. Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center, said smaller budgets and staffs caused most of that drop.

In statehouses in Missouri, Nevada, Kansas and Arizona, student journalists outnumber full-time reporters.

“Students now make up a significant portion of the reporting pool — 14 percent of the total and 26 percent of part time,” Mitchell said.

Pew Research found 51 students covered Missouri’s capitol in Jefferson City, 36 more than full-time reporters, and in Carson City, Nev., 12 students covered the statehouse compared to the six full-time reporters. Sixteen students reported from the Arizona statehouse, three more than full-time reporters at the Phoenix capitol. Eleven students worked at the statehouse in Topeka, Kan., three more than full-time reporters.

The study used the American Journalism Review’s studies of statehouse reporters and compared the results to the 2014 data gathered through questionnaires and interviews with outlets that previously covered the capitol, press secretaries and legislative staff. Mitchell said the AJR studies did not track students covering statehouses, so 2014 is the first year for which data on students is available.

Students who cover state government for their school’s student media are not counted in the Pew Research Center study, but college newspapers cover state politics and elections for the campus. During election years, Arizona State University’s student paper The State Press has more state government coverage than in non-election years with stories on candidate debates, politicians’ campaign visits to campus and candidate information on state representative and senator candidates, said Shelby Slade, the paper’s news editor.

The State Press reports on more than elections, but Slade said they cover the issues most relevant to students, such as bills about state funding for higher education, immigration reform, marijuana legalization. They also reported former governor Jan Brewer’s 2014 state of the state address when she asked the Arizona Board of Regents to stabilize tuition at state universities. When politicians talk about or take action that will affect the cost of attending college, Slade said the news staff covers the topic because it affects students’ finances.

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said there is a “glaring need” for neutral journalism that covers all sides of an issue without a slant favoring one side.

“The more reporters we have over there with pens and notebooks, the better off we are,” Anstaett said. “If we don’t have independent journalists covering these events, covering the hearings and the controversies that arise, citizens aren’t prepared to participate in their government.”

Learning curve

Because of the increased student presence, Mitchell said there is a “loss in institutional knowledge that exists among those that are doing statehouse reporting now.”

At Cronkite News, Elliott said he spends much of his time helping the student reporters understand the context behind bills, lawmakers and politicians.

Cronkite News has four to eight students covering the statehouse each day during the semester. At the beginning of the semester, Elliott shows them how to read a bill and goes over old bills related to their story. Elliott said he suggests stories in the beginning of the semester and guides students toward bills Cronkite News has covered so there is archived background, or toward lawmakers who have been sources for past stories.

Founded in 1972, the Missouri Digital News statehouse reporting program at the University of Missouri journalism school sends students to cover the legislative session. Phill Brooks, director of MDN and a journalism professor at the university, said about 24 students work twice a week at the Capitol each semester and provide content to the state press association newspapers, local CBS radio affiliate and public radio stations.

Steven Anthony, a senior broadcast journalism major who has worked three semesters at MDN, covered taxes, ethics reform, right-to-work and abortion legislation. When he filled in for an education reporter during a House of Representatives debate on a bill that would have restricted students from leaving unaccredited school districts, he said he relied on Brooks for context on the issue and to understand the differences between the Senate and House bills.

Anthony said the “nature of the issue and the complexities of the issue” made the story difficult because he wanted to cover the amendments and their significance.

When Brooks isn’t available to answer questions about background, Anthony said he asks professional reporters at the capitol.

“They’re very helpful, so I’m very appreciative of that because there are some issues that I have no clue what I’m doing,” Brooks said.

Brooks, who began covering the Missouri statehouse in 1972, said it’s more difficult to get information out of agencies and politicians than in the past, and it bothers him that future statehouse reporters won’t understand what open government should look like.

Tim Carpenter, statehouse bureau chief for the Topeka Capitol-Journal, who has covered the Kansas legislature full time for the last decade, said KU Wire students he’s worked with have to produce at a faster pace than they do at a college paper.

Students have trouble “absorbing the information, consolidating and writing quickly” when they come to the statehouse and they’re covering different topics. He helps fill in the gaps for students, easing them out of the “learning laboratory” of the student newspaper and into a higher-visibility reporting job.

Lesley Wiedenbener, executive editor of Franklin College’s TheStatehouseFile.com in Indiana, said her students work with the professional reporters from print and broadcast outlets at the statehouse. Students at TheStatehouseFile.com produce stories for about 12 newspapers, news websites and television and radio stations in a month-long January term class, a requirement for all journalism students starting in spring 2015, Weidenbener said.

Students in the University of Kansas’ statehouse reporting program, called the KU Wire, produce stories for more than 230 papers in the Kansas Press Association that will have access to the wire’s content in the 2015 session, said Scott Reinardy, associate professor of journalism and director of the KU Wire.

Reinardy said he helps students — about 10 each semester — on their first story. He attends a committee with them and explains where they should pick up documents, describes the key lawmakers for the bill and suggests lawmakers who would be the best sources. He encourages students to choose a beat for the semester so they can focus on one issue, like education or taxes, and become familiar with the legislators and committees on that topic. Students working at the statehouse learn how to navigate ideologies and bureaucracy in addition to researching bills, he said.

“If you can cover a statehouse, you can cover anything,” Reinardy said. “It carries gravitas and weight with anybody looking to recruit young people out of college.”

Serving as government watchdogs

Despite the number of Franklin College students working at the statehouse during the class, they don’t have protections that reporters with professional outlets have. Indiana and six other states — Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New York and Texas — exclude unpaid student journalists from protection against a subpoena to reveal a source under its reporter’s privilege law.

Mark Goodman, journalism professor at Kent State University and Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism and former SPLC executive director, said if students need to rely on an anonymous source to report on wrongdoing in the statehouse, a lack of protection for the student journalist could result in the source being unwilling to talk.

“If they couldn’t assure their source that ‘yes, I will and I’m legally entitled to protect your identity,’ chances are that source won’t give them that information,” Goodman said.

Overcoming any setbacks that student journalists often face when reporting on state government, their work has proven to prompt meaningful change, often diving into issues larger outlets, like The Associated Press, don’t touch.

“It’s important to have a fleet of reporters there covering the nitty-gritty and the big picture stuff,” Elliott, of Cronkite News, said. “There’s certain bills we’ve covered that, because we’ve covered them, they’ve got more of an airing than they would have otherwise.”

In 2012 Arizona lawmakers passed a bill requiring children ages 5 to 8 and shorter than 4 feet 9 inches to use a booster seat. Previously, Arizona was the only state that didn’t follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations on booster seat laws — even though similar legislation had been introduced for
several years.

“One of the reasons that got through was every single session Cronkite News would go in and cover it,” Elliott said.

In 2010 the news service published an article about political candidates using public campaign money to buy iPads and computers. Candidates were allowed to keep fixed assets like computers and printers that cost more than $800, but in 2011 Arizona’s Clean Elections Commission, which governs the taxpayer-funded finance program for candidates, changed the regulation to require candidates to buy assets worth more than $200 at 50 percent of the original cost.

“They said it wasn’t, but it was because of our story,” Elliott said. “They changed the rules because of our story.”

When reporters don’t watch state government, Elliott said, legislators can pass “sweetheart deals,” bills that favor one group over another, or unconstitutional laws, like a North Carolina law that attaches jail time and fines to students who post negative comments about school employees online.

AJ Vicens, who is now a reporter at Mother Jones in San Francisco, covered voter registration, early voting and immigration for Cronkite News in 2012 and 2013, where he learned to do clear, clean reporting on “real stories that have real impact,” adding that he learned more working in the field at Cronkite than in the classroom.

“You definitely need to be doing,” Vicens said. “You need to make mistakes. You’d rather take your lumps in school than when you get out into the real world.”