Loss of the Capitol news bureau

The golden dome of the Colorado Capitol building is seen after dark. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

The golden dome of the Colorado Capitol building is seen after dark. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Do you know what your local lawmaker did during the last legislative session?

Judging by the fading commitment of community newspapers to covering state Capitol beats, many Coloradans probably don’t.

As traditional newspapers transition to an Internet world filled with part-time bloggers, content-sharing Web sites and Google, embedded legislative correspondents have disappeared from the nation’s capitals, apparent victims of dwindling newsroom resources and a changing industry.

The secular shift of advertising to the Internet has slashed traditionally high newspaper profits, leaving expensive Capitol bureaus easy targets for publishers wanting to reduce operating costs.

“When editors start looking at what to cut first, things that are furthest away from the newsroom and the community usually stick out,” said Sandra Fish, a journalism instructor at the University of Colorado and former statehouse reporter for The Boulder Daily Camera.

Colorado newsrooms haven’t dodged the bullet.

A decade ago more than a dozen newspapers and wire services embedded reporters in the state Capitol during the legislative session. Today only seven do.

Gone are the days when papers — including the Daily Camera, The Longmont Daily Times-Call, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and The Greeley Tribune — had correspondents in Denver beating stories out of lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staff. Desk space in the Capitol press rooms — which editors once proudly fought for — now goes unused.

The trend is not specific to community newspapers either. The Colorado Springs Gazette, which recently lost its statehouse reporter, is rumored to be leaving the Denver-based position empty, and other large papers across the country are doing much the same.

A new coverage plan

Statehouse reporters from Colorado’s two largest dailies, The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News, still staff the Capitol, as do the Associated Press, The Pueblo Chieftain, The Durango Herald and The Denver Business Journal.

A Senate Education Committee meeting is seen on the third floor of the Colorado state Capitol building. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

A Senate Education Committee meeting is seen on the third floor of the Colorado state Capitol building. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

The Rocky and the Post cover stories of statewide importance and keep on top of Denver issues, but both largely underreport stories of local importance to communities outside the metro area.

“Readers in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Fort Collins might reasonably think that nothing gets done at the Legislature and that whatever does get accomplished has little impact on their lives,” said Katie Reinisch, communications director for the House Democratic Majority.

“Yet they won’t realize that they only hear about their local lawmakers when they are embroiled in scandal or controversy,” she continued. “The Rocky, Post and AP are not going to write (stories) on the solar panel rebates bill that the Boulder legislator promised to fight for, or the uranium mining bill that affects only Northern Colorado, or the education changes that El Paso county’s only House Democrat is pushing for, but they will write about it when El Paso county’s (Rep.) Doug Bruce wastes time and taxpayer’s money with his (headline-grabbing) games. And that’s all readers will know.”

Despite the reduced coverage, it’s doubtful editors prefer reporting on legislative action from a hundred miles away or relying on the Associated Press to fill the paper with stories of general interest. But tough economic times always bring unwanted changes.

Longmont’s managing editor, John Vahlenkamp, said the decision in 2006 to pull the newspaper’s Capitol reporter, who covered the Legislature for the Times-Call, The Loveland Reporter-Herald and The Canyon City Daily Record, was about changing priorities and the best use of the paper’s reporters.

“It boiled down to making the best use of our resources, to minimizing the duplication of coverage that the AP provided, and to focusing more on our local markets,” Vahlenkamp said in an e-mail, adding some readers expressed unhappiness about the decision, but not as many as he expected.

The shift in coverage hasn’t equated to a total lack of legislative news stories in the Times-Call, though, just a different approach.

“Since our decision, we have published fewer stories, and shorter stories, about what goes on in the Legislature,” Vahlenkamp said. “This doesn’t mean we have dropped local legislative coverage altogether. At first these duties shifted onto beat reporters, who would keep an eye on statehouse action that intersected their beats. Recently we added a twist to this coverage plan, assigning one reporter to keeping an eye on multiple levels of regional government, including the Legislature. Still we expect other reporters to fold a bit of Legislative coverage into their beats, as it affects them.”

News fit to print

The Capitol building's west wing bustles with the movement of a busy legislative day. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

The Capitol building's west wing bustles with the movement of a busy legislative day. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Reporting on the Legislature is not impossible outside of Denver, though, even if it is difficult, and stories that impact people’s lives are still widely told in newspapers across the state.

How many residents knew the state Legislature was debating Sunday liquor sales this year, for example? How many in southern Colorado have heard of Pinon Canyon?

Based on the amount of newspaper coverage, probably quite a few.

Newspapers on the Eastern Plains have utilized free-lance reporters to cover legislative issues important to their community. The Rocky has forged a number of content-sharing agreements with community newspapers, expanding legislative coverage for those publications beyond the Associated Press.

There are bill-tracking services available for lobbyists and political junkies who need to follow each piece of legislation from start to finish.

And reporters today can utilize technology to monitor statehouse activity from anywhere in the world and can listen to floor and committee hearings streamed live over the Internet. Yet it’s never quite the same local coverage long-time readers have come to expect from their community newspaper.

That could change, though.

Newspapers that constantly shift coverage could discover their watchdog role is the path to stable ground in the digital world. After all, covering government historically is what newspapers have done, and there is no shortage of people wanting to be informed on the topic.

So will the lost Capitol bureaus ever be reinstated? Will the press rooms ever fill to capacity again?

It’s possible, some editors say.

“Our options are open,” Longmont’s Vahlenkamp said. “But I can’t make any predictions.”

Ed note: Sandra Fish was a fellow and editorial mentor for the Center for Independent Media in 2006-07. She is no longer affiliated with the organization.

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Aaron Harber

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