Today in North Carolina

Press corps returns en masse

June 27, 2014 

The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms could have a sense of humor about his stormy relationship with the state’s news media.

“I sell a lot of newspapers for you,” Helms told me several times, and I always thanked him for being “good copy.”

That conservatives make for good copy, or good video, is no more evident today than in the press room of the Legislative Building during this short session. A room that just a few years ago was almost empty is now full of reporters covering the General Assembly, so much so that there is little room for the out-of-town reporters who just come in for special stories.

The attraction, of course, is the Republican majority and the sweeping changes – often controversial – that they are making to North Carolina government and life.

A bit of background: In 1985, the legislative press corps might have peaked in membership. All of the state’s major newspapers and major TV stations, two wire services and several syndicates of smaller papers had reporters and columnists in Raleigh. But the very next year, the number started to fall.

By the mid-1990s, with newspapers cutting back because of high newsprint costs and TV stations abandoning legislative coverage in favor of crime news, statehouse press coverage around the country had fallen dramatically, so much so that an esteemed national press foundation issued a major paper warning of the dangers posed by legislatures that did not have watchdogs.

By 2009, the mid-1990s looked like a golden age. In Raleigh, only a few papers still had Raleigh reporters, and TV coverage was minimal.

Today, the reporters are back. The leader of the press corps has issued more than two dozen permanent credentials, and, she says, she issues eight to 10 temporary passes every day.

Moral Monday demonstrations, a perfect TV story with a lot of video, draw the most reporters. But so do the press conferences on teacher pay and the hearings on drilling for natural gas.

This is not the same old press corps, however. In 1985, newspapers heavily dominated the press room. In the mid-1990s, almost all of the reporters were print-oriented.

Today, McClatchy is the only newspaper group with a daily team of reporters. Other papers are sending their reporters to town irregularly or not at all. The permanent credentials are more likely to be held by reporters for radio, TV or Internet news outlets.

WRAL-TV has three reporters and varying numbers of technical personnel. Public radio has three reporters. WNCN-TV has a reporter-videographer team.

There are at least two Internet-based outlets on site regularly, North Carolina Medical News and Carolina Public Press. Additionally, the TV and radio stations do double duty, providing packages for their broadcasts but also posting a lot of news on their websites and on Facebook.

There aren’t many hopeful signs for American journalism in these days of declining newspaper revenues, but the rise of broadcast and Internet coverage of what had always been a print-dominated newsbeat is one.

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