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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




What Happened to Coverage of Congress? 

May 28, 2014 — By Kelly Born

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the collapse in media coverage of Congress, its importance to our system of government, and what if anything foundations can do about it. Congress is ostensibly the people’s branch, but arguably most people don’t know much about what Congress is up to (other than the government shutdown, perhaps).

It’s no secret that the news media is struggling greatly—the rise of the internet has been met with a concomitant fall in subscription and advertising revenues. Many newsrooms have had to reduce staff, or close entirely. According to a recent report on the State of the News Media in 2013, employment of full-time editorial staff, which peaked at 57,000 in 1989, had fallen by 29% by the end of 2011. The same report found that the number of newspapers with daily circulation has fallen by about 14% since 1990, while another recent study found that over 400 local newspapers had closed or moved to web-only between 2007 and 2011.

Other platforms (radio, TV) cannot really step in to fill the void. Another study found that 80% of all news stories simply repeat or re-package information that has already been published elsewhere. Among stories that contain original news, 95% has come from traditional media, primarily newspapers. Someone has to do the original reporting upon which everything else is based.

This negative transformation has profound implications for citizens’ understanding of Congress, and thus for the quality of representation that we receive from Congress. Consider the following trends:

recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 27 states now have no Washington reporters. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by “about half since the mid-1980s.”

An online news website in Maine, a state which now has no Washington reporters, describes the implications well: “In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know.”

Not only does the demise of print journalism impact what we know about what our representatives are doing on our behalf in Washington, it also means citizens are flying more or less blind when it is time for them to vote. A study of five small-market daily newspapers in 2008 and 2010 found that the papers paid little attention to local congressional races. On average, the papers ran 2.6 articles per congressional race in their circulation area in 2008 and 3.3 articles per race in 2010. Challengers viewed as highly unlikely to win are often especially marginalized in local campaign reporting, further reinforcing incumbents’ advantage.

If small-town newspapers are bad, large-market papers do no better. A 2004 study, looking specifically at the Los Angeles market, found that “not one story about a race for the U.S. House appeared in the Los Angeles stories.”

So back to my question: What, if anything, can foundations do about all this? The estimated $160M that foundations contributed to journalism in 2011 is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.6B in annual cuts to newspapers’ editorial spending estimated by the FCC. Is there anything we can do in the face of these market forces that could improve reporting on Congress, of both its day-to-day work and around elections time?

Moreover, quite apart from the supply of quality reporting, in the modern age of information proliferation, what can be done to improve demand for news coverage of “the people’s branch”—of its current and potential members. Especially when this democratically essential information has to compete with Kimye wedding videos?

We are convinced of the need to improve both the supply of and demand for quality reporting on Congress. What we’re trying to ascertain is whether, and how, we might help those forces start to reinforce each other in a positive direction.