By:
February 25, 2021

The States Newsroom — an expanding network of outlets focused on statehouse coverage — is launching a free syndication service that will allow other news organizations to republish coverage from the network’s 20 newsrooms.

Called “Capital Connections,” the service aims to make it easier for readers to access state-level coverage, which director and founder Chris Fitzsimon says has shrunk significantly in recent decades. States Newsroom will also launch five new outlets this year, starting with Idaho and New Hampshire in the spring and New Jersey, Oregon and New Mexico by the end of the summer.

“State and local is really the place where we need to, I think, emphasize new models and new ways to make sure we’re not just holding politicians accountable … but also explaining to people the impact of the decisions that they make in the legislature about voting, the environment, civil rights, health care, all the issues that affect our lives every day,“ Fitzsimon said.

Fitzsimon started the nonprofit network in 2017, and the first three outlets launched in Nevada, Florida and Virginia. In the years since, States Newsroom has expanded rapidly and has 17 affiliate news sites — outlets created by the network — and three partner newsrooms — independent sites the network supports with grants. It most recently launched the Daily Montanan last month.

Each news site is run by a veteran journalist from the area and has a staff of roughly four or five reporters. Some newsrooms also have opinion editors. A Washington, D.C., bureau contributes reporting to the 20 newsrooms, and three national editors check in regularly with the state editors and support them as needed.

The States Newsroom team takes care of funding, human resources and digital support for each of the affiliate newsrooms, leaving them to focus on editorial content. Occasionally the outlets will do their own individual fundraising, but States Newsroom pays for most of their expenses.

Other papers have come to rely on them

Fitzsimon first realized statehouse coverage was shrinking nationwide in 2004 when he started NC Policy Watch, a news and commentary outlet that covers North Carolina elected officials. (NC Policy Watch is now a States Newsroom partner). The problem has only grown in recent years. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that only 30% of newspapers assign any reporter to the statehouse, and students account for 14% of that reporting corps.

Virginia Mercury editor-in-chief Robert Zullo saw that downsizing firsthand when he worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. During his second stint at the paper as an energy, environment and transportation reporter, he would go to meetings of state regulatory boards and often found he was the only reporter there.

“It used to be the case that all the big newspapers from around the state had their capital correspondent. They had people here to cover the general assembly session and report from Richmond, and over the years as the newspapers have downsized, that’s really gone away,” Zullo said.

As the States Newsroom outlets try to fill that gap in statehouse coverage, other papers have come to rely on them for state-level reporting. Zullo said local papers often republish the Mercury’s content, which has become especially valuable for smaller, rural newspapers.

The new Capital Connections syndication service will formalize the process for republishing content from the States Newsroom outlets. Anyone is free to republish the stories online or in print under a Creative Commons license with proper credit. States Newsroom estimates that by the end of the year, roughly 25,000 articles will be made available through the service.

The affiliate newsrooms also regularly republish each other’s work and often collaborate on reporting projects. For example, the Iowa Capital Dispatch worked with reporters in Washington, D.C., Michigan, and several other states to cover the Iowa caucuses since 2020 was the first year Iowa held events out-of-state.

Missouri Independent reporter Rebecca Rivas said the opportunity to work with other reporters across the network was one of the major draws of the Independent. One of the first things she did when she joined was to look up the biographies of the other States Newsroom reporters.

Rivas has already connected with an Arizona reporter about a possible future collaboration. She is also working with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting on a project centered on police reform.

“Because we’re a news nonprofit, it almost attracts a lot more collaboration with other news nonprofits. There’s a lot of opportunities to partner and build on each other’s strength,” Rivas said.

Though the newsrooms are all relatively young, they’ve already covered some of the biggest stories of the past year. The Iowa Capital Dispatch, for example, was the first outlet to report the news that supervisors at a Tyson Foods plant ran a betting pool over how many of their staff would get infected with COVID-19. That story went viral and got picked up by national outlets.

That story was borne out of an update on a wrongful death lawsuit. Iowa Capital Dispatch editor-in-chief Kathie Obradovich said she and her reporters seek to track enforcement of government regulations, lawsuits against the state — “things that people just haven’t been paying attention to on a regular basis.”

“I wanted to focus first of all on the stories that were being neglected,” Obradovich said. “They’re not necessarily going to be clickbait stories. They’re going to potentially be influential stories and hopefully let policymakers know what’s happening in state government and hopefully engage readers.”

Stanley Dunlap, a reporter at the Georgia Recorder who covers criminal justice and elections, has spent the past several months covering news threads of national interest — election-related bills, hearings on the 2020 election results, and the recent U.S. Senate runoffs.

“It was kind of surreal covering that and just how much weight and how much power Georgia was going to have in national politics,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap previously reported on the Macon County Commission for the Macon Telegraph, but when he got the chance to cover a state-wide government with a $26 billion budget and all the departments and agencies that came with it, he knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“There’s a lot that goes on that you might not realize (will) affect your day-to-day life,” Dunlap said. “One of our key missions is trying to at least put some attention on what are the key issues that do impact Georgians.”

The growing nonprofit model

In a time when many newsrooms are struggling, the people at States Newsroom say the nonprofit model might be the future of journalism. Traditional newsrooms have had to contend with declining advertising revenue for years, and the pandemic has exacerbated many outlets’ financial woes, leading to closures and layoffs.

States Newsroom, however, is expanding, and has launched six newsrooms since the pandemic’s start. Zullo said that it has become clear there is an audience out there for deep policy coverage and that nonprofits are the best path for sustainable newspaper journalism.

“I think there’s a large portion of the world that’s just decided that news should be free, and it always will be,” Zullo said. “I think that’s always going to be a barrier to a for-profit model.”

Obradovich, who has worked in journalism for more than 20 years, said she feels more secure in her job at the Capital Dispatch than she has at any prior job.

“In the past, we’ve sort of felt like we were tiny cogs in a large machine, and the decisions were maybe being driven by things like stockholders instead of what’s best for the news content, for the readers,” Obradovich said. “(At the Capital Dispatch) we’re masters of our own fate. It’s up to us to determine our direction, and we are empowered to make decisions here.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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