More reporters are covering state legislatures now than in 2014, but fewer of them are taking up that important responsibility as their full-time beat.
A new report just issued by the Pew Research Center analyzed self-reported data representing all 50 statehouses through surveys conducted from September 2021 through March 2022, in addition to 24 in-depth interviews with reporters, legislative staff, editors, managers and other experts to determine the health and vigor of statehouse reporting.
“We wanted to update this report and understand statehouse reporting. Statehouses are the epicenter of a lot of important decisions that have an impact on people’s daily lives,” says Katerina Eva Matsa, Pew’s associate director of research. “Who is there and covers that legislation and informing people about all this development is important in terms of decision making and, of course, our democracy.”
The results are a mixed bag: Much of the growth in statehouse reporting comes from students, nonprofit organizations and digital outlets. Many reporters who cover the statehouse are doing so for a particular assignment or piece of legislation — someone normally assigned to an education beat might follow a bill pertaining to schools but will return to their other work once that process is completed, for example.
“There was an 11 percent increase (in statehouse reporters) from the last time we did this study in 2014,” Matsa says. “The full-time reporters, that that’s their beat, day in and day out, even with COVID, remote work and following everything on a non-daily basis, that beat and the pool of reporters has decreased since 2014. The second development that happened is the rise of nonprofit news organizations. What we’re seeing there is more nonprofit organizations are adding statehouse reporters into their staffing to cover statehouses.”
The nonprofit organizations provide more “boots on the ground,” she says. “In this group they are full-time, their total increase in statehouse reporters was in all the different categories and all the types of employment we looked at. They increased staffing in full- and part-time beats, students, the whole number. A lot of that was either new nonprofits, organizations that didn’t exist in 2014, or nonprofits that existed but they added reporters in the past few years.”
The size of the state does seem to correlate to the size of a statehouse reporter pool, the report notes as well.
“We do see a strong association between the state’s position (in terms of being the largest in terms of population) and the length of the legislative session when it comes to looking at the full-time reporting pool,” Matsa says. “A larger state, like Texas or California, they tend to have more full-time statehouse reporters. That’s something we had seen in 2014. When it comes to increases and decreases, there isn’t anything specific to those states where they increased or decreased in terms of numbers that have anything to do with the demographic of the state. All states tend to have more or fewer reporters because of the length of their legislative sessions.”
A new study from the Pew Research Center looks at the state of statehouse reporting in the U.S. and comes away with some good news and not-so-good news. Katerina Eva Matsa, Pew’s associate director of research, shares the details.