When our friends at The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus closed their Capitol Bureau in Jackson recently, it left the Daily Journal as the only newspaper with a full-time Capitol presence.
Bobby Harrison has been working out of the Capitol press room for 14 years now and Norma Fields and Mark Leggett before him make for 34 years of an unbroken, year-round Journal presence in that majestic old building. We expect to be there at least another 30-plus years, though Bobby may not want to work quite that long himself.
The diminishing number of statehouse reporters in all media has been a national trend for a decade or so. The reason? Many newspapers and television stations decided that their readers and viewers just didn’t care enough to justify the expense of covering the Legislature and state government closely.
We view it differently. A primary obligation of newspapers is to shine a light on government at every level, to help readers understand the issues, events and players in government and politics in a way that will encourage an informed, active and engaged citizenry.
Details of state budget negotiations or the latest developments in state education or health care policy may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s impossible to dismiss their importance and impact on the lives of Mississippians. Having our own reporter there helps us do a much better job of reporting on such matters, as well as keeping an eye on issues of particular importance to our part of the state.
I acknowledge a bias here. I’m a former Capitol reporter.
I started in college sending freelance articles from the Legislature to my hometown paper in Meridian and a few years later returned as Capitol correspondent for The Sun Herald on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In those days of the late 1970s and early ’80s the Capitol Press Corps was a big group.
At one time there were year-round bureaus in the Capitol representing The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, The Sun Herald, the Columbus paper and the Daily Journal. Two wire services – The Associated Press and United Press International, the latter now extinct – competed with a couple of reporters each during legislative sessions. The two Jackson papers – The Clarion-Ledger and the late Jackson Daily News – had a total five or six reporters covering state government. Clusters of smaller papers hired their own freelancers during the legislative sessions to cover their delegations, and several Jackson TV and radio stations were regularly on the beat.
There’s no question that the presence of so many reporters covering state government – a new phenomenon at that time – both heightened statewide interest in the goings-on at the Capitol and helped many more citizens become engaged in the process.
New technology, of course, has made citizen connection with state government easier in the years since. And the advent of political blogging, talk radio and other opinion-weighted coverage of state government and politics has made for a more varied media landscape.
But that still doesn’t make up for the folks doing the actual day-to-day, shoe-leather work of gathering the facts, sitting through the meetings and reporting the news that others use as grist for the commentary mill.
The AP has fewer people covering state government now than it did even a few years ago, and the Jackson newspaper has cut back as well. The Sun Herald and Commercial Appeal shuttered their year-round bureaus in the last few years. Columbus, whose Capitol Bureau had always been unusual for a paper its size, held out as long as it felt it could.
That the Journal is one of the few left standing is a source of both pride and regret for us. Pride in that we are committed to providing our readers with the best possible state government coverage from Jackson and will incur the expense to do it. Regret that the corps of experienced, knowledgeable reporters who know their way around the Capitol, are there all the time and can hold politicians’ feet to the fire is diminishing.
The Journal’s history and mission are intertwined with decades of high-profile issues at the state Capitol with a direct and measurable impact on Northeast Mississippi, from education to highways, water supplies to industrial incentives. We’ve had a front row seat in reporting those issues, and for us, vacating that seat is simply not an option.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579.