AUG. 31, 2012 -- South Carolinians today have to look harder than ever before to find out what their state government is up to, thanks to a modern media that puts infotainment on a pedestal.
In the 1990 S.C. Legislative Manual, there were a total of 61 print, radio and television reporters credentialed to cover the General Assembly.
According to the current-year online version, now there are 26 total – 11 print and 15 from radio and television. That’s down four reporters from 2010, even.
And with Associated Press correspondent Jim Davenport -- the well-regarded, seasoned newsman of the current Statehouse press corps -- out on medical leave since January, not only does the quantity of reporters seem to be shrinking, but so is the quality.
So. Who’s minding the store?
“It was a lot more competitive when everybody was covering the Statehouse,” said Sid Gaulden, one of those 61 from two decades ago who now works as the spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Safety.
Not everyone on the 1990 list was at the Statehouse everyday of the legislative session, according to Gaulden. “But we even had the UPI back in those days.”
Gaulden said the shrinking numbers are a representation of the current state of media in this country where the amount of space, time and resources spent on hard news is retreating.
“Look at the front page of The State newspaper: you used to have lots of local stories,” Gaulden said. “But now, you’re lucky to get any local stories anywhere.” He went on to ask, rhetorically, what radio stations, AM or otherwise, have in-house news desks that do anything beyond “rip-and-read” coverage.
Several of the reporters covering the Statehouse for major papers and news outlets declined to comment for this story. But they agreed it was "spot on" to describe Statehouse reportage in South Carolina as declining in quality and quantity.
“If I knew what needed to be changed, or how to do it, I would have already won that Powerball lottery,” chortled Gaulden.
A little information
Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon said The Palmetto State “so needs” the level of coverage it had enjoyed in the past. “And it’s not just the numbers of reporters have gone down … it’s the quality, too.”
Huffmon bemoaned a modern journalism phenomenon in which he sees in-depth investigative reporting being swapped for blips on Twitter.
“The illusion of having enough information is actually more dangerous than not having any information at all,” said Huffmon. He added that scant media coverage would lead the electorate to assume nothing was wrong and that there was nothing to worry about.
Evidence of that paradigm is on display, according to one longtime Statehouse insider. For example, in the old days, Statehouse staffers often would provide several tables for reporters and risers for TV cameras. These days, it’s lucky if a few reporters show up to fill seats at just one table.
S.C. Press Association 2011 Journalist of the Year Corey Hutchins covers state government full-time for the Free Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in Columbia.
Hutchins said he worried that reporters working for “mainstream” media outlets might not be getting paid enough to care about what’s happening to state coverage.
Hutchins, for one, doesn’t buy into bigger outlets claiming that cutbacks in Statehouse coverage are a result of dwindling resources and ad revenue. “They’ve already decided how their coverage is going to be allocated.”
Eric Ward, a former Free Times reporter who now works for The Nerve, an online outlet published by the conservative S.C. Policy Council, said that a good analogy for the difference in coverage these days compared to “olden” times would be zone versus man-to-man defense.
“I think, right now, we’re not seeing the level of coverage from two decades ago … the numbers say it all,” said Ward.
While online coverage of state government is evolving, Ward said he didn’t know whether small cadres of hyper-informed reporters could fill the void completely.
“The media is so fragmented compared to the 1990s that it’s hard to foresee Statehouse coverage ever getting back to that level,” said Ward. “We try to do it with The Nerve, but media is so fragmented with the mainstream blurring the line more between entertainment and news.”
While computers and increased transparency may have made the modern reporter’s job easier, Ward worried there was a danger “in conditioning what we do into bite-sized nuggets.”
Ward, defending his site’s neutrality, said audiences have become more segmented and “people gravitate to what they want to hear, which is easier these days, because you can,” thanks to the Internet.
Crystal ball: What will be the media paradigm for cogent Statehouse coverage in the future? No one knows, but look for more slimming down and more specialization as newspapers continue to jettison … err … trim through attrition some of the most experience and knowledgeable (read: expensive) writers and look more pool coverage. Then, there will be a Lost Trust or a Watergate, and, after much flailing, it will make news sense to hire better reporters. But will they still be there?
Bill Davis is editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: email@example.com.