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June 05. 2014 12:12AM

Drew Cline: In the State House, a weakening check on NH government

NORMA LOVE, who has worked for The Associated Press for 31 years and covers the State House in Concord, retires at the end of this month. On Wednesday, the last day of the legislative session, she was recognized by legislators for her dedicated coverage of their work. Career reporters like Love are harder to find in state capitals these days, and that has tremendous implications for American governance.

Roaming the State House halls on Wednesday was the vice president of government relations for the New Hampshire Bankers Association, Tom Fahey. For most of 2000-2012, Fahey was State House bureau chief for the Union Leader. He recalls a press room more crowded than it is today.

“When I started at the State House, and I would go up there on assignment as a business reporter, the press room was pretty full. You would easily have five or six people there at any given time.”

The press room is mostly empty now. Garry Rayno, the Union Leader’s current State House bureau chief, sees the difference. “In the State House press room, there used to be real competition for the desks and you had to wait until a news organization decided they didn’t want it before someone new could move in. But now two desks have been removed and one that remains is empty all the time.”

The remaining reporters removed desks when their colleagues left. “We had all this furniture in the room and we were stepping over things and cracking our hips on stuff and we decided to just get rid of the stuff,” Fahey said.

Fewer reporters produce fewer stories. The big stories, especially ones on the state budget or the most controversial issues, still get covered. But less obviously controversial issues that might have become big stories a few years ago now go unreported or underreported. In this legislative session, lawmakers generated 742 legislative service requests, which are submissions to staff for draft bills. There are not enough reporters to write about them.

Fewer reporters doing more work also means less context. “I think the main difference, it’s the extras that don’t get reported: the what happened in the hallways outside the hearing, where decisions were really being made,” Fahey said. “We just don’t get that deep reporting and perspective the same way we used to.”

The trend is nationwide. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of state capital reporters fell from 40 to 29 in California, from 35 to 15 in New Jersey, and from 14 to five in Georgia, according to American Journalism Review. The result is a less informed electorate — and a less scrutinized government.

A 2012 Harvard study found that the more phyiscally remote a state capital, the more corrupt it tended to be. When state capitals are located in major population centers, there is more public scrutiny of the government’s actions, which helps keep corruption down.

The structure of New Hampshire’s state government reduces corruption by diffusing power. The one constant outside check on that power has been the press. When it weakens, government becomes a little more powerful by default.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.


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