We're losing a leash on legislators

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published February 9, 2008

Florida faces intense budget pressures. Moneyed interests still have the Legislature in their grip. Gov. Charlie Crist runs the most open administration in the state's history.

Too bad fewer reporters are in Tallahassee to witness it all.

Instead, we're witnessing the steady depletion of a capital press corps that has long been regarded as one of the strongest in the country. That's bad for democracy.

Ravaged by readership and advertising losses and struggling to turn a profit from their online editions, U.S. newspapers are trimming their staffs. State capital bureaus are not immune.

As a consequence, fewer people are around to hold government accountable and make it relevant to taxpayers and voters.

The Florida Times-Union used to be a state paper of record for its two daily pages of news from the capital. The once-hefty Jacksonville daily gobbled up the combined output of two wire services UPI had a strong presence then, and political writers such as Hank Drane and Randolph Pendleton added analysis.

The T-U has left town for the moment. Its only reporter resigned several weeks ago for a job in Washington and hasn't been replaced, though the paper is advertising the vacancy.

It's a troubling trend. Recent departures have left the Palm Beach Post with two reporters, the Tampa Tribune with one. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel last year reduced its staff from two to one. The Orlando Sentinel is holding at two reporters. The Miami Herald has three. Four New York Times-owned regional papers share a staff of two.

The largest news operation belongs to Gannett, which has five reporting positionsfor readers in Pensacola, Fort Myers, Cocoa Beach and Tallahassee.

Fewer reporters means more reliance on Associated Press stories, which are serviceable but can't possibly be tailored to regional differences. Fewer reporters mean fewer people to monitor lawmakers and encourage them to pay attention to problems back home.

To be sure, capital reporters still make many solid journalistic contributions. Twenty years of reporting from here have taught me that lawmakers behave differently when they know a hometown reporter is watching.

That brings us to the St. Petersburg Times, which has three full-time reporters based in the capital and senior correspondent Lucy Morgan. That's down from four a year ago (what this bureau chief calls "a 25 percent cutback" to his bosses).

Two weeks ago, the Times became the last major Florida paper to end daily circulation to Tallahassee. The paper cited the growing costs of trucking the paper north every night to serve a devoted but tiny following of several hundred readers.

The substitute for the printed paper is the Times' e-edition - the entire paper, page by page, on your computer - for $99 a year. But for some readers, it's just not the same as being able to drop 50 cents into a news rack and cradle the state's largest daily newspaper in your hands.

Stroll down a street in Tallahassee in search of a daily paper, and your choices are limited to USA Today, the Wall Street Journal,the New York Times and the Tallahassee Democrat.

This slow withering away of capital bureaus means less coverage of your local legislator, less coverage of what's happening to our schools and universities, and fewer investigations of official ineptitude and corruption.

Fewer journalists are based in the capital than at any time in the past two decades, and in a few years, Florida will be the nation's third-largest state.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.