Creating a capitol news bureau: Making state government a local issue

April 5, 2016

By Frank Garred
Coordinating Editor | WNPA Olympia (WA) News Bureau

The story begins this way: In Washington State, where the Legislature and governor face $100,000-a-day contempt penalties imposed by the state’s Supreme Court for not responsibly funding constitutionally-mandated basic education …

The 2016 Washington State Legislature deferred its response until 2017.

… and where the Legislature approved an education measure to create another plan to solve the “problem,” a bill that earned the governor’s signature …

Even the governor supports deferral, while the penalties mount.

… and where legislative leaders anticipate, but are not promising, a funding solution this session, then didn’t …

Legislators funded a charter school measure that affects fewer than 2,000 students but continued to ignore its obligation to fully support the million or so public school students.

… and where voters in 134 school districts in the state were asked Feb. 9, 2016, to fund $3.39 billion worth of operating and maintenance special property tax levies between now and 2021, taking the task the court assigned to the Legislature into their own hands …

Scores of other public school districts are scheduling special tax levy elections in April 2016 to support their education systems.

… and where those local school district voters approved all but three of the self-imposed February special tax levies—one of those three failed to gain the required minimum 50 per cent plus one vote approval by a single vote …

Two of the three districts whose levies failed are asking voter-support again.

…  and where the Legislature’s funding solution to meet the Supreme Court mandate is equal in amount to what local school districts’ voters approved in February …

Local school districts, after the April levy votes, would substantially exceed revenue requirements the state should be paying.

…  partisan political rhetoric continues to lead state government’s response to its required constitutional responsibilities … with no firm solution.

 

Connecting with readers

So how do Washington’s 110-plus community newspapers, including some small, influential dailies, manage to connect such a heady issue to their reader-constituency?

Through the six-year-old Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation’s Olympia News Bureau, that’s how.

This current 2016 legislative session with its education funding conflicts, among others, has been the most challenging for relating these demanding issues to local communities.

In addition to the school operating fund levies, voters in 27 school districts faced requests for $1.86 billion for facilities construction projects, which require a minimum 60 percent plurality for approval. And yet another 22 districts sought voter support for $253 million in capital project levies. The core foundation for these is the need to provide more classrooms to support class size reductions, also demanded by the state’s Supreme Court edict.

And another Legislature responsibility, according to the Supreme Court directive.

So far, the Legislature has agreed to budget funds to support class size reductions and facilities development for grades kindergarten through grade three. Grades 4-12 remain unfunded.

The story goes on to reveal other challenges the Legislature faces related to those basic-education Supreme Court mandates.

What Washington newspapers are discovering is that issues erupting in the state capital have distinct repercussions in their own communities. State issues are local issues.

More examples:

• Wildfires scorched thousands of acres of forestland last year, costing millions in unbudgeted funds and stretching local firefighting resources to a breaking point. The Legislature is working to budget funds to repay local responders and to shore up the state’s firefighting response funds to meet expected future wildfire events.

• Washington State is earning millions of dollars in tax revenue from the legal marijuana market, but is losing millions more to the illegal market because of the high state tax rate. So a proposal to reduce the tax affects communities that benefit from it. That issue gets the ONB attention and relates how a lower tax rate is expected to increase local revenue by defeating the illegal sales marketplace.

• The state transportation budget enumerates scores of local highway projects. ONB stories review and summarize that budget, with accompanying details for every highway project in the state delivered to every newspaper.

• Social and health programs under legislative consideration get the ONB summaries and translations for local news media consumption.

Better yet, each story sent to member newspapers earns a cover note detailing suggestions for localizing. Many newspapers take those suggestions and deliver even more comprehensive stories relating state policies to local realities.

Nothing new here, except the state’s major newspaper association—Washington Newspaper Publishers Association—has established a professional journalism link between the state capital of Olympia and the state’s community news media.

What happens in Olympia now is of concern, and interest, in Waitsburg, Chewelah, Forks (of Twilight literary fame) and Wahkiakum County, and the other 107 community newspapers receiving stories from WNPA’s Olympia News Bureau. Get out the state map and scan for these cited towns and all the other cities and towns connected to the ONB.

Staffed by two full time reporters, Journalism program seniors at the University of Washington in Seattle, plus two professional mentor-editors, a UW faculty member and a coordinating editor for the association, in-depth stories are delivered to the state’s community newspapers for their consideration and further collaborative reporting to link them to community sources and resources.

Stories focus on issues, not just the hundreds of legislative bills introduced each session. For example, a bill specifically directed at funding wildfire suppression gets a story examining recent wildfire history, its affect on communities including local fire suppression services and on the people directly affected and displaced by such events.

Each story is shipped to members with a cover-summary of that story and suggestions for localizing. Education funding, cited above, is a great example. While the Legislature struggles to find a bi-partisan solution, each school district in the state is affected by any legislated outcome. (Republicans and Democrats are fearsome adversaries when it comes to budget issues, despite the Supreme Court’s $100,000-per-day penalty.)

The special school tax levy is a strong element to connect the state-local issue.

Legislators limit the amount of local money that can be spent on public education. Right now, that figure is 28 percent of the amount state and federal resources pay to local districts. But in the legislative process, local levies could be cut to 24 percent, and that is without a permanent solution to the state’s funding responsibilities to meet the Supreme Court mandate.

State issues equate to local impacts.

The WNPA Olympia News Bureau, with its volunteer support staff, costs the newspaper association’s foundation a $3,000 scholarship for each reporter to live and work in the Olympia political environment about 10 weeks each winter quarter.

The mentoring program involves former professional journalists, either retired or working at state agencies. The 2016 mentors are Dave Ammons, former Associated Press Olympia Bureau reporter, now communications director for the secretary of state, and David Workman, former editor at the Everett Herald and Tacoma News-Tribune, and another former state agency media spokesman.

As coordinating editor, I review final drafts and ship them to the member newspapers with the cover note providing suggestions to coordinate the stories with local sources and resources.

Andrea Otanez, former newspaper editor, columnist and reporter, journalism adviser-instructor at Everett Community College, and a full-time lecturer with the UW’s journalism program, supervises the students in Olympia, not just the two with WNPA’s news bureau, but others with the state TVW network, The Seattle Times and other news media outlets covering the legislative scene.

The mentors and editor are non-paid volunteers. The UW Olympia program faculty director is paid by the university.

Of note here: when the students-turned-reporters appear on that scene each January, the press corps nearly doubles. Permanent on-site reporting teams from state news outlets are conspicuously absent in today’s rapid-journalism legislative environment. Even the Associated Press has limited staff covering the state capitol, except during the legislative session. It’s still limited, but a few more reporters are brought in to share the load.

When WNPA entered the Olympia arena with a reporting team at its news bureau in 2011, a thread connecting that coverage to the member newspapers was stretched. How could it be coordinated so that the most current details reach those 111 member newspapers in a timely fashion, with the necessary on-scene editorial oversight?

As a former newspaper owner-publisher (editor, reporter, ad rep, office manager, janitor), I volunteered. Recently acquitted for over-staffing a community college journalism program, a new adventure was needed.

With Port Townsend Leader Publisher Scott Wilson at the helm of the state’s newspaper association foundation, and because I live in Port Townsend and was his immediate predecessor, the partnership was ordained. He got the money; I got the job—unpaid, but unchallenged, too.

Five legislative seasons have passed, and now the sixth is winding down.

Each story is vetted by the mentoring and faculty staff, and gets my eyeballs before heading out to members via e-mail blast. That e-mail list is carefully crafted to reach community newspaper editors, not just the publishers and presidents of member papers, a few of whom have little daily editorial involvement with their papers.

News bureau clients are more than just the non-daily papers in the state. Several dailies and tri-weekly publications publish news bureau stories with collaborative localization.

Ah, yes, and we often “beat” the metropolitan news media with in-depth stories they ignore or cover summarily. Of course, the big media often beat us, but our interest and intent is to reveal a story that has local connectivity.

Our reporters must live where they work. Finding apartments during the legislative session remains a critical challenge, but a bed-in-a-basement can work for 10 weeks or so.

Working space is another matter. The past four years, the news bureau has found luxury accommodations at TVW studios, just a short walk to the capitol campus.  Wi-Fi and phone connections are readily available, plus the onsite Web and TV coverage of committees and floor action in House and Senate keeps reporters connected to resources.

Which brings us to yet another  “critical” issue: all these web connections and live TVW coverage are merely resources, not sources. News bureau stories require direct interviews and in-person reporting for stories being covered. New technology cannot replace traditional human-to-human reporting.

Any state newspaper association not already operating such a program could emulate WNPA’s Olympia News Bureau. The program is free to association members. Its support funding comes through the WNPA Foundation’s annual convention auction. That source also supports about a dozen or so summer internship scholarships.

Comments from Olympia News Bureau clients generally support the program. Some are more enthusiastic than others, although we urge and invite critical evaluations of stories and of the program from member newspapers with each story distributed.

Many client newspapers make requests for focus stories in tune with their local constituency. ONB meets those requests.

ONB alumni praise the legislative reporting experience, and acknowledge the pressure and intensity that attends the experience. They urge future participants to prepare for capitol reporting by carefully studying state government, its formation, foundation and function. They especially focus on how the Legislature operates, how committees perform, and how legislation is introduced and managed. The roles of the political caucuses and their influence on legislation are critical to understanding the lawmaking process.

Those alums further advocate honing reporting skills, and especially writing to and for an audience focused on their home communities. On the academic side, they strongly support intense study of public affairs reporting and political science topics related to local and state government. © Frank Garred 2016

 

Frank Garred is a former NNA and NNA Foundation president, a past president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, and founding manager of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (2002-2006), for which he continues to volunteer time and effort. He retired from newspaper publishing in 2002, and has since taught in college journalism programs in Washington State. Contact him at fpg@olympus.net with questions, comments, and suggestions to make this program even more responsive to community newspapers’ needs.

 

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