Sometimes you just have to sit down at the table and eat your broccoli.
It's the same with news. Economic reporting is not the first topic I turn to, but I know that as a reasonably well-educated adult, I need to keep up with it.
But when it comes to state politics, media consumers are eating less broccoli than ever. To take an example, let's look at WWBT Channel 12. Jim Babb was assigned to the state Capitol beat from 1980 to 2000; he attended legislative meetings and special sessions all year. UPI (a now-defunct wire service), The Associated Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, WDBJ in Roanoke and Lynchburg, The Virginian-Pilot, WRVA and WTVR Channel 6 all had full-time correspondents covering state politics during that time, he says. More media outlets sent crews during the January sessions.
Babb says he saw an evolution in the way state media covered the legislators toward the end of his stint with Channel 12, with less adherence to the beat system and fewer reporters overall, a trend that's progressed in the past decade. "I am not speaking critically of the way it's covered today," he says. "News evolves, and I think probably news editors want to have more flexibility with their staffs."
But Babb, now an independent communications consultant, says some issues, like redistricting, which comes up this year, involve yearlong legislative discussions. Because he was there for many of the talks, Babb had developed a solid background when it came time to report on final decisions. Few reporters have the same breathing room today.
With degrees in public administration and political science, Ryan Nobles, who covers state politics now at Channel 12, is enthusiastic about Capitol coverage, even the nitty-gritty of what gets spent where. He's noticed that there's less coverage of each subsequent session of the General Assembly. The Washington Post has two reporters embedded all year in the State Capitol, and the Times-Dispatch will have five writers covering this year's session (up one from last year).
But Nobles, like other regional reporters, has other jobs, including general-assignment reporting and anchor duties.
"We can't dedicate a reporter down at the Capitol every day of the session," Nobles says, but he makes up for that by talking to legislators about what the hot issues are likely to be, like last year's smoking ban and this year's overhaul of protective-order laws.
But what about redrawing political boundaries and endless budget negotiations? They don't make for sexy TV, but Nobles knows they have a major effect on the public. That's where WWBT's Decision Virginia blog comes in. Started in 2008 to cover the state's role in the presidential election, it has morphed into an all-purpose state political site. "The blog allows us to go more in-depth," says Nobles, who writes most of the posts. A story about the state's proposed $4 billion transportation plan, for instance, was given one minute on air, but there are many more details on the blog.
Nobles says it's "definitely frustrating" not to be able to get more content on television, but popular posts can influence what gets on TV.
The many moving parts of the budget and redistricting discussions will likely be on Decision Virginia, Nobles says, and perhaps not only the political junkies will read. Let's all eat our vegetables this session.
Richmond magazine's editor in chief, Susan Winiecki, is married to Andrew Cain, the political editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.