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Student reporters fill a critical gap in state government reporting


The local news company is in crisis. The country is currently losing two newspapers per weekaverage, and 70 million Americans live in news deserts, communities with little or no local coverage. In much of the remaining area, only decimated newsrooms and ad-heavy publications with little local news, known as “ghost papers,” remain.

The problem is even more acute when it comes to covering the country’s state houses. The total number of full-time state house reporters fell 6% from 2014 to 2022. Still, state legislatures are addressing important issues including abortion rights, voting rights And standards for educational programs.

Where full-time staff reporters have disappeared, university-led state house reporting programs have stepped in, according to research from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Research Center. More than 10% of state house reporters are studentsand in some states, they are a major presence in the state House media corps.

A map of university-affiliated local news programs in the US, from the University of Vermont Community News Center.

Journalism promotes democracy

An informed citizenry is essential for a thriving democracy. Researchers have found a strong link between the availability of local news and community involvement, participation in the vote And number of candidates run for local office. Less local news leads to more polarization and higher municipal costs to taxpayers as accountability reporting declines.

Statehouse reporting programs are part of a larger commitment by universities to connect student education with local news needs. Through classes, newsrooms, and media collaborations, these programs provide students with vital opportunities to use skills learned in the classroom – and provide much-needed local coverage. Emerging stock exchange finds partnerships between news outlets and universities are effective at both teaching students and serving the public.

I am leading a national effort to document these programs across the country as part of the Community News Center. As of early 2023, we had cataloged more than 120 programs in which university-led student reports contribute to local coverage.

Among those, we found 20 specimens from university-coordinated reports from state houses, covering 19 states; Florida has two.

James Nani, of SUNY New Paltz’s Legislative Gazette, interviews US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Richard Watts, CC BY-ND

How the programs work

These programs are not internships, but state house reporting agencies led by experienced journalists who assign, edit and review student work to ensure it meets ethical and professional standards.

Once ready for publication, the students’ work is almost always shared for free to media platforms across the state. In 2022 about 250 student reporters produced over 1,000 stories for 1,200 media outlets in 17 states. The programs of the remaining two states, in Texas and Vermont, will begin in 2023.

Under professional direction, student reporters produce important stories about state government across the country.

For example, at the University of Missouri, stories from students about lack of fast internet in the countryside in 2018 created momentum for lawmakers to pass new legislation That has generated millions of additional dollars to increase broadband access.

In early 2023, the University of Florida state house team brought the story of a new $300,000 private pool built in the mansion occupied for free by the university president, just before Ben Sasse, a former US senator, assumed that role.

In Louisiana, 92 publications included stories from the Louisiana State University reporting team. In a companion effort, dubbed the Cold Case project, students delve deep into racist murders from the state’s past. At the end of 2022 a series of stories about the police murder of two students at Southern University led to one public apology by Governor John Bel Edwards.

In Montana, a reporter from a sorority house wrote a compelling story early 2023 questioned spending in a state fund focused on mental health and health prevention. The story was widely republished, including in small newspapers such as the Ekalaka Eagle, which serves a town of 400, as well as the statewide newscast. the Montana Free Press. A week later, Governor Greg Gianforte announced $2.1 million in new spending on universal mental health screening from the fund.

Already in 2016, series of stories from the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service generated a lot of attention about the lack of state oversight of nursing homes. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh cited the students’ work in pushing for new regulations; legislators passed two laws addressing issues raised in the series.

A KOMU news report featuring student journalists about the state capital of Missouri.

New programs are launched

In Vermont, the University of Vermont Community news service started with a statehouse report program this spring with three students each receiving six credits and a $1,000 stipend. Together, the students have already published 23 stories on topics as diverse as diversification of agriculture And child marriage.

For our university, the program meets different needs: students gain experience, media outlets receive content and the university fulfills them public service mission.

Clearly, more colleges and universities could step in to fill gaps in state house reporting. We found that in just eight states — Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — there are 42 colleges and universities with more than 200,000 students within 10 miles of state homes.

Public universities, with their mission of public service and long-standing journalism programs, provide the most student reporters in our survey. Private colleges are largely absent.

But in Indiana, some of the 1,000 students at tiny Franklin College staff the Statehouse fileproducing stories like a deep dive into the KKKs consequences for the state and a study of pregnancy-related deaths due to new ones abortion laws.

Student journalists in these college-run programs fill local news gaps, add legislative stories that are missing, while also building skills, polishing their clips, and learning how government works.

I believe more public and private universities should follow their example. Democracy depends on an informed public.

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