The news didn't get smaller, the papers did
By Jerry Burris
There's been a growing amount of fretting recently in the journalism racket about the steep decline in the number of reporters covering state capitols and other state government news.
The count of "state house" reporters is down by a third and the number is going nowhere but down in the months and years to come.
Most of this is due to forced budget cutting by strapped newspapers and an increasing emphasis on "local local local" in coverage. But what could be more local than state legislative coverage, where you can find someone who represents and knows every district? Every corner of the state?
This lack of eyes and ears in the various state capitols means there is more room for shenanigans, backroom deals and outright corruption. Most politicians are not crooks. But when there is no one watching, the temptation becomes greater to cut corners.
These thoughts naturally come up on the last day of publication of The Honolulu Advertiser. Tomorrow, Honolulu will have just one newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The surviving newsroom will be full of top-notch reporters, editors and photographers. But you have to wonder what will happen to the driving force of competition.
Television, radio and emerging new media enterprises will provide some of that competition, and that's good. To date, the Associated Press also maintains a presence. But they all face the same financial pressures as the newspapers and fall far short of the resources the two papers were able to bring to bear on a story.
Specifically, looking at government coverage, the future is anything but pretty. The combined paper will have two of the state's best government and political reporters on the job, Richard Borreca and Derrick DePledge. You can count on solid coverage and analysis from these two former competitors.
Reporters are classic Type "A" personalities and will do just about anything to get a scoop. That won't change. But when you know there is no one on the other side sniffing around, it is sheer human nature that you will take your time or pick the stories that interest you.
Editors will have less of a way to make a gut check on what is happening at the Capitol. Everyone who has ever worked a beat knows the chill that runs down the spine when an editor calls or e-mails to say: "Hey Brand X has thus and such. Do we have?"
There's simply going to be less of that. Editors and managers will understand that they will sell just about the same number of papers whether or not they grabbed that last scoop or bit of news. After all, where else are the readers to turn?
There was a time when the two papers swarmed the Capitol, the state administration and the Legislature with ranks of top reporters. Imagine a time when each paper had a staff of four or five at the Capitol and most of the TV stations had a permanent bureau there during sessions.
In large part, this was simply because that's where the story was. We were a new state and the Capitol was where its identity was being formed and written. You had to be there in force. Clearly, this has changed, but it is still a big story.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with, compete with and admire a lot of good reporters. Hawai'i has been fortunate to have the likes of these people watching out for it. They include, just by example:
Larry McManus, Doug Boswell, Gerry Keir, Tom Coffman, Byron Baker, Dan Boylan, Buck Donham, Gregg Kakesako, Doug Woo, Sandee Oshiro, Mark Matsunaga, Gerald Kato, Bill Kresnak, DePledge and Borreca and so many more.
That's just the newspaper side. Television had some hotshots including Denby Fawcett, the then-Bambi Weil, Ken Kashiwara, Elisa Yadao and others. Radio offered the lovely voiced Ed Michelman and there were many more.
How's that for a murderers' row?
This is my last column, which began in 1980 and has run just about every week since 1980, believe it or not. The future will be an adventure. Let's see what happens.
Jerry Burris began at The Advertiser as an editorial writer in 1969 and later worked as a political reporter, Capitol bureau chief, city editor and editorial page editor. He's most recently been a political columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.