The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

The N.C. General Assembly is in full swing with a flurry of bills ranging from blocking the expansion of Medicaid and trimming unemployment insurance to fast-tracking fracking and banning the exposure of female nipples.

I’m worried there aren’t enough journalists in Raleigh to question this legislative deluge.

Some of those issues might bore you (well … maybe not the nipple ban), but a functioning democracy depends on the media’s ability to fulfill its watchdog role. The state needs journalists to keep citizens informed.

Harvard University professor Alex Jones estimates 85 percent of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but comprehensive statehouse reporting has suffered as the business models that enabled newspapers to hire large staffs fall apart.

The destabilizing threat of the internet has pushed many profit-driven newspapers to axe reporters covering not-so-sexy public interest beats like state government. And it’s the mid-level metro daily newspapers that traditionally formed the backbone of state-level accountability journalism that now face the biggest financial challenges.

The American Journalism Review found that the number of reporters covering state capitols dropped by about one-third from 2003 to 2009, and that trend has continued.

“Statehouse journalism is a shadow of its former self,” said former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps in a talk at UNC last week.

Media consolidation matters too. The McClatchy Company, for instance, owns the two biggest N.C. newspapers, hurting the reporting rivalry that once forced the Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer to compete for stories rather than share them.

UNC journalism professor Ferrel Guillory, a former reporter and editor for the N&O, said journalists can head off scandals when public officials know they’re being watched.

“Investigative reporting is great, but we need journalists going to committee meetings, going to board meetings — just sitting there, being there and watching,” he said. “That’s the quiet deterioration of state government coverage.”

It’s not all bad news. Media outlets like WRAL are finding innovative ways to fill the accountability gaps in state government coverage created by newspaper cuts. The Daily Tar Heel recently received a well-deserved award from the N.C. Center for Voter Education for its commitment to in-depth, day-to-day coverage of state government.

But today there are often no reporters in the room during public legislative meetings, and the general absence of live audio and video recording of committee proceedings compounds the problem.

The N.C. legislature is moving at a breakneck pace on major policy issues that will have an enormous and lasting impact on the state. And journalists — and the public — are struggling to keep up.

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