The State of Capital News

July 5, 2018 7:20 am

Lucy Morgan; Photo by Anthea Penrose

Florida’s capital city has long enjoyed a reputation for keeping track of news about the state and nation.  That reputation was earned in an era when you could drive downtown in Tallahassee and stop at Dubey’s, a small bookstore and newsstand just a couple of blocks from the state’s historic old Capitol.

You could buy the Miami Herald, St Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, Florida Times-Union, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel and a few other smaller papers and take them home or to the office seven days a week. Many state agencies ran their own clipping services, selecting the best stories of the day, copying them and distributing a thick packet to all employees.

In Tallahassee, we might have been the best informed people in the state.

Nowadays we are lucky to see or touch an actual newspaper aside from the hometown Tallahassee Democrat.  Instead we lean over a laptop computer or an iPhone and scroll through the news.

It is not the same. It’s easy to miss a good story and many areas that once had active newspapers delivered are now dark holes with little local or state news.

Major newspapers have eliminated staff or cut out capital bureaus altogether in the frenzy of cost cutting that has swept the nation. Only a few papers – those not dependent on retail advertising revenue — are operating at full strength and that does not include any of the Florida papers. Instead they have drastically cut staff at every level and sold the very buildings that once housed that staff.

We have small Capitol bureaus with only a few reporters who are all stretched to the limit as they try to cover a newsy state with big influence.  And they are doing more. Instead of merely writing the best news of the day, they are tweeting, shooting and posting video and occasionally doing live shots on Facebook.  All of this requires skills that we did not need a decade ago.

The media landscape keeps changing. We may have more individuals writing about state government these days, but many now write for small web-only publications with a limited audience.  Several sites aggregate lists of the day’s top news and distribute links to subscribers in a bid to get more news out to more readers.

But with so many news sites now available at the click of a keyboard, the door is open for operations that turn out to be funded by the very interests they cover. In some cases, the owners of news organizations are not publicly known, leaving everyone to read their tea leaves and guess. Is it Big Sugar? Gambling? Utility companies? The backers of individual candidates? Or could it be environmentalists, advocates for children or some other worthy cause? It’s tough for readers to figure out, and they may long for the day when just one or two newspapers arrived at their doorstep – take them or leave them.

Despite easy access to the internet, many of us are not as well informed as we once were.  And some of us are reading only news where we agree with the publishers.

I suspect this scenario is playing out all over the country as we struggle to keep up with online publications that include blogs, newsletters and the pages posted by traditional newspapers, tv and radio stations.

It’s hard to say where all of this will end.  Those of us who have spent our lives working at traditional newspapers have witnessed the cutbacks and layoffs and tried to console coworkers who have been forced to find new professions.

Rising in the place of big powerful news operations are small, lightly staffed web sites distributed to relatively small audiences. Major news organizations, think tanks, educational institutions and various foundations continue to explore ways to distribute news to mass audiences.

“I see more sites doing more journalism, but sustained funding is a problem,’’ says Neil Brown, former Editor of the Tampa Bay Times who is now president of the paper’s owner, the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “We want them to be sustained by foundations with good intent, and ultimately you want an audience that will support it.”

Brown says news sites need to be supported by “good deed doers’’ with varying levels of independence. “The intent is to fire up the middle,’’ he added. “For all of the polarization, we need to find a way to create the great middle.’’

It’s expensive work. Many news organizations offered free access to their web sites for years, but most came to realize that free access was a mistake, Brown noted.

The old model for newspapers relied on money from advertisers, subscribers, and all sorts of sources. Today’s model should include some advertising money, some subscriptions, some from foundations or grants and payments for specific reports. And news organizations must be transparent – it has to be clear who is writing and publishing the news, he adds. (See Florida Phoenix Editor-in-Chief Julie Hauserman’s column, introducing the staff of the nonprofit news operation.)

Brown says some big newspapers are surviving despite all the cost cutting. Some are surviving by creating partnerships with other news organizations. He believes more local news, local innovation projects and good readership programs will grow the next generation of readers.

A lot of us are counting on it.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.