Editor’s Notebook: Why State Legislative Coverage Is Vital

By John Celock

On Thursday Politico Magazine published an interview with former New York Times editor Bill Keller and former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli about the changing media landscape. As part of this interview, Keller noted how the changes to newspapers in recent years have led to less coverage of state legislatures.

Yes it is true there have been cuts to state legislative coverage by papers around the country. It has been an impact of the ever-changing state of the newspaper industry in the United States. As newspapers have been making cutbacks to personnel and coverage, unfortunately coverage in state capitols has been among the biggest areas that have been cut.

While it is easy for me to make a case for the importance of coverage of local government, Washington or foreign policy, coverage of these areas should not come at the expense of coverage of state government. State governments nationwide handle a wide variety of important legislation and programs that impact the daily lives of Americans. While yes, local decisions on potholes and school curriculum will have a direct day-to-day impact, the state’s allocation of transportation funding or determination of school standards helps shapes those decisions and has a daily impact. At the same time the decision made in Washington, while important, do not have the same impact that state policies do.

We are in an era of dramatic change in state governments around the country. Much attention has been paid to the actions of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on labor policy or Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) budget cuts or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) attempts to transform state government while under investigation. At the same time many innovative policies are developing in state legislatures that need scrutiny and coverage.

I can think of many examples of state legislators across the country who are pushing legislation that can be classified as innovative or important in the long term. In Michigan, state Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) is pushing new teacher evaluation systems while also working with other lawmakers on a longer school year. In Kansas, state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) has been pushing new tax cuts for boat owners and the makers of homemade planes, saying that it would help those industries. In North Dakota, state Rep. Kylie Oversen (D-Grand Forks) has been pushing policies to bring nondiscrimination to the state’s LGBT population.

New Jersey Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) and Kansas state Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) have both passed legislation to crack down on child molesters. In New York, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) is pushing policies for state government reform, while in Missouri, state Sen. Brian Nieves (R-Washington) is pushing nullification of federal gun laws in the state. Nieves bill, should it pass, would likely cause federal court rulings on the nullification issue.

These are just some of many examples that I can give.

We are also in the era of legislation transcending lines. Many times bills are proposed in multiple states and issues sweep across the country. While there are those that immediately want to engage in questioning how this is happening and that is important. It is also important to look at what this legislation is and how a proposal being made this year in Kansas could next year surface in North Carolina and Wyoming.

We also need to look at the political pipeline and how state legislators are often future congressional candidates and statewide candidates. In one of the more dramatic examples in U.S. history, President Barack Obama was only four years out of the Illinois state Senate when he was elected president. But there are other important cases where looking at what is happening in state legislatures could provide clues to the behavior of a future member of Congress or governor and provide ideas about these candidates.

State legislative and state government coverage needs to be comprehensive and provide coverage of issues and personalities. It should look at all sides of state government. It should not just include stories written for viral hits but cover all aspects. While in the age of digital media, viral hits will continue to be an area that things will be judged on; it should not be the only criteria in deciding stories.

The current media landscape offers many opportunities for coverage of state legislatures to come back and be better than ever. While there have been cuts, there is still a market out there and a void waiting to be filled.