Un-Covered

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It got to be routine. Brandi Grissom of the El Paso Times would look up and see yet another lawmaker standing there, peering down at the handful of reporters scattered around what was once a jam-packed press table at the state Capitol. And then would come the inevitable question: Where is everybody?

Legislators weren’t the only ones who noticed. Political insiders who tinker with all the oily machinery, out of sight and below deck, were well aware of the crushing cutbacks at traditional news outlets that have decimated the ranks of Capitol reporters. And they knew that each round of layoffs, buyouts or retirements left fewer reporters to monitor that machinery and spot the small threads that can lead to important investigative stories or analysis shedding light on the dark corners of legislative business.

“The specific people who had expertise about some things are not here,” Grissom says. “You just miss a lot of that institutional knowledge. People who would have been keenly aware of those little triggers are not there to see them.”

As the 2009 session opened, some veterans were missing from their usual stations. John Moritz, who had expertly bird-dogged a variety of issues for seven sessions, was no longer representing the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, whose four-person Capitol bureau shrank to one. Jake Dyer (who also happens to be one of the nation’s best writers on billiards) had accepted a buyout from the same paper, taking with him years of experience drilling down on state regulatory agencies like the cozy Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission and the often-secretive Texas Railroad Commission. Elizabeth Hernandez, who exposed abuses of children and power at the Texas Youth Commission for Freedom Communications’ papers in South Texas, was gone—and so was her ability to cover the many issues that afflict the chronically overlooked Rio Grande Valley. (Her absence was painfully underscored in the June 11 New Yorker, which features a long investigation into why McAllen has the lowest household income in the nation and some of the highest health care costs.) The Dallas Morning News had lost Karen Brooks, who took a new-media job at Austin’s KXAN.com. The Houston Chronicle, which had already combined its Capitol bureau with the one from the San Antonio Express-News, announced in midsession that it was cutting 90 newsroom jobs.

“I had spent a lot of my time at the Star-Telegram doing criminal justice reporting,” Moritz says. “During this session some of the advocacy groups were looking for avenues to get a point of view or their side of the story out there, and they would call me because I had worked with them before.” But Moritz, now an energy reporter for the online Quorum Report, had to tell the advocates that his new gig didn’t allow him to sink his teeth into their plight. “I had to tell them that I could nibble around the edges,” he says, “but to fulfill my new mission, I had to be true to it.”

At least Moritz still had a Capitol reporting job. The dearth of reporters at this year’s session left newspapers and broadcasters, even more than in the past, scurrying to follow the politicking as if it were a horse race. Many Texas papers were hard-pressed to provide even episodic daily coverage, let alone the longer, analytical pieces that decipher the myriad obfuscations at the state Capitol.

“There are certainly a lot fewer in-depth pieces, period,” says Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Harrington is among those who’ve relied on the media to provide leads on which cases he needs to litigate. “What strikes me is how shallow the coverage is,” he says. “You see the governor say something and it is taken at face value, without any critical analysis or follow-up. It has been of great concern to me, actually very troublesome.”

Readers can argue till the cows come home about how strong state government reporting in Texas has been in the past. But there certainly has been brilliant reporting through the years, including stories that led to important legislation, exposed corrupt actors and derailed harmful bills. And there’s no question that during this session, several big issues—storm insurance, the environment, regulatory agencies, poverty, health benefits for kids—needed far more scrutiny than they got.

“We can safely say that environmental reporting during the session was really thin. Energy reporting was pretty thin,” says Ross Ramsey, whose online Texas Weekly has taken up some of the slack caused by newspaper cutbacks.

The fundamental problem, Ramsey reminds anyone who thinks Texas can do with fewer reporters, is this: “We don’t know what [stories] we missed.”

That uncertainly grows from the fact that “specialty reporting” has been one of the casualties when news outlets cut back. In the late 1990s, The Dallas Morning News had the luxury of assigning me to a specialized story: Scrutinizing Gov. Dubya’s plans to privatize the state’s welfare system by handing it over to giant defense contractors, most of whom were twitching with excitement about being paid billions to control social services in Texas.

The Star-Telegram‘s Dyer was able to do fearless, thorough reporting on the Texas Railroad Commission, including investigations into millions of dollars in questionable spending. “Jake Dyer was the last guy who really kind of made [energy] his beat, made regulatory agencies his beat,” says Harvey Kronberg, whose Quorum Report has increasingly become required—but subscription-only—reading for people who used to turn to bigger, older outlets for legislative coverage.

“It boggles my mind when I think of how many stories go unreported now,” says Hernandez, who is now attending law school instead of writing her usual end-of-session pieces. She mentions state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, who’s reportedly been under federal and state investigation for possible ethics violations. “He is not one to enjoy media scrutiny, to put it nicely. There is no one asking him questions. I think that is pretty incredible.”

Meanwhile, bowing to the new financial metrics, traditional media have made a relentless drive to “go local”—giving Dallas readers, for instance, nothing but news about Dallas. In the past, some reporter could routinely convince her editors that a story not necessarily “about Dallas” or “about Houston” could be something that people in those cities would want to read and talk about—because it had a human-interest quality or a stunning investigative underpinning, or because it was just a well-written and well-photographed piece.

In 1997, I talked my Morning News editors into letting me go to the Rio Grande Valley to gauge the true effects of Gov. Bush’s social-services policies. I remember trying to measure the exact distance from the front steps of the state Capitol to the door of an abandoned, dilapidated school bus in Edinburg that a poor family had converted into a very unsafe home—and where folks anxiously wondered whether they could survive Bush’s “compassionate conservative” proposals. I wanted to put the precise mileage in my story to underscore how what happened in the air-conditioned hallways of the Capitol directly affected people with no running water along the Texas-Mexico border—the kind of connection that’s rarely, if ever, made by the events-driven coverage today. And, of course, the piece was meant to be a preview of what the governor might later do at a national level.

It’s unclear whether that kind of big-picture, narrative policy reporting is going to prosper again. The local-news philosophy that picked up pace in the late ’90s moved along at warp speed this legislative session, and it shows no signs of stopping. “We consider our Austin bureau an extension of our local desk,” says Dallas Morning News deputy managing editor Mark Edgar.

As one instance of what’s lost in that approach, Kronberg points to the battles in this year’s session over how to fund the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which offers coverage to people who can’t get private insurance. At first glance, windstorm insurance may seem relevant only to coastal citizens. But folks in non-coastal areas might have found themselves paying for the billion-dollar, state-chartered fund. The myriad, thorny possibilities—getting policyholders around the state to subsidize the fund, using general state revenue, tapping Texas’ Rainy Day Fund—clearly resonated far beyond the coast. Ferreting out the complex machinations, taking a deep-rooted look at who was lining up where and who was scratching whose back, is the kind of story that can take weeks or months. (Kelley Shannon of the Associated Press was one of the few reporters able to dig into it.)

Such far-reaching stories sometimes require strength in numbers: an organic, holistic process where one reporter pursues one angle, another reporter from another news outlets advances the story by building on the first reporter’s findings, and on and on until some sunshine prevails. Brandi Grissom says the competition elevated the level of journalism as reporters fed off one another. Talking about Elizabeth Hernandez, she says: “We competed, but we could bounce ideas off each other.”

In the end, the most troubling aspect—which might become even more evident when the lawmakers reconvene in 2011 with even fewer reporters—is this: The kingmakers with the bucks to control their public image will be more powerful than ever before.

As Ross Ramsey puts it, having a decimated state Capitol press corps “increases the power of those with the resources to communicate. It disempowers the people who have to rely on the free press.”

Bill Minutaglio is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books, including unauthorized biographies of George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales. His book on Gonzales and his book on the Texas City disaster were excerpted in the Observer. Minutaglio is the co-author of a biography of Molly Ivins that will be published later this year by PublicAffairs Books.