Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL147.PRB - The Changing News Culture in the Statehouse«MDNM»
I was chastised the other day by two leaders of Missouri's Senate.
They were angry about a critical quote from me in a newspaper story about plans to move the press corps out of their offices just weeks before the start of the legislative session.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard argued I should have talked to them before speaking out.
They had a point.
As dean of the statehouse press corps, I should help facilitate communications between legislative leaders and the news media. I failed.
Yet, the Senate's plans illustrate a significant change in attitudes about those of us who report to you what's happening in your government.
It's partially self-inflicted.
There are fewer of us covering this place. Television has almost abandoned regular coverage of the statehouse.
This fall, when the legislature was not in session, a number of news offices in prime Capitol real estate were empty.
So, the Senate Administration Committee voted to give that space to its own communications staff and move reporters to offices in what amounts to the Capitol's attic.
Government is partially to blame for this diminished role of statehouse reporters.
There simply is less to cover. Gov. Jay Nixon's administration has blocked access by reporters to agency officials.
The legislature has far fewer interim committee sessions that used to generate major news stories.
Even when the legislature is in session, we're a diminished presence.
There's less interest from our outlets to cover tedious hours of process. Besides, we easily can follow Senate debate listening to Internet streaming without being in the chamber.
So, unlike decades ago when reporters jammed the Senate press table, it's largely unused space except for the few times of major news.
That's led to a Senate idea to move reporters from the Senate's historic press table to upstairs in a section of the visitors' gallery -- a kind of press peanut gallery.
Part of the pressure to move us from the press table involves term limits. An increasing number of legislators rely on staff to explain legislation and draft amendments.
Under-used space is sought by staff -- like our press offices and our Senate press table.
Last year, the House leadership approved wiping out the historic House press gallery to provide more staff space. That effort was abandoned after adverse publicity.
Another factor behind the idea to remove us from the Senate floor arose this year when a Senate leader had what he thought was a private conversation with a colleague while standing near the Senate's press table.
It wasn't private for long. What amounted to an admonishment by a Senate colleague got tweeted for all the world to see by a reporter who overheard the private conversation.
A couple of us told the senator that we would not have reported that admonishment, but those who tweet live by different rules,
Another part of this story involves the complaints I hear from legislators about our limited coverage of what they are doing.
To them, I would argue that diminishing our access does not foster enhanced coverage of Missouri's General Assembly.
Besides, as a journalism teacher I fear it discourages future generations of government reporters whom I teach.
This place has been a special place for me to teach the majesty of public policy reporting.
For decades, my students felt welcome in Missouri's Senate. From Washington DC to statehouses across the country, that open access to the floor of Missouri's Senate meant something.
Many told me how they became inspired by just being able to sit at a table on the Senate floor. It inspired them to pay attention and listen to what was being debated.
After this next session, I fear that opportunity may be gone.
I need to end this column with a disclosure.
I am the only member of the press corps protected from the plan to move reporters to the Capitol attic. My newsroom is on the House side of the building, and thus, not subject to the Senate.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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