The  statehouse reporting desert

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Hello everyone,

The media was taken to task in a column a while back from Delaware House Republicans who are frustrated over government reform efforts.

Republicans introduced a series of bills aimed at ending late session moves that include bills that are passed without with numerous revisions and with little time for legislators or staff to review the final product. The reform bills had a positive initial response but went nowhere.

Flawed process

One example of the flawed process came late in the session when a measure passed that allowed Kent County to levy a hotel taxes with proceeds going only to the DE Turf complex. The favored status of DE Turf drew intense fire and led sponsor Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, to ask Kent County Levy Court to shelve the measure until alternate legislation is passed.

The county complied and Paradee angrily responded to aggressive coverage of the situation from the News Journal that focused on alleged conflicts of interest involving family members.

House Minority Leader Danny Short and State House Minority Whip Tim Dukes said in their opinion piece that “members of the media bear some responsibility for this. Any proposal made by minority Republicans is discounted and given little attention if it does not have significant Democratic support since reporters believe a bill facing steep odds of enactment is less newsworthy. Such misguided handicapping is negligent. This lack of reporting conspires to reinforce the status quo and leaves potentially innovative reforms to wither and die without debate and without notice.”

Reform efforts did not get a lot of coverage. We did report on the legislation, but any further coverage was lost in the herky-jerky nature of the session that includes breaks where much of the real work is done behind the scenes.

Moreover, any desire for reform diminishes when the party in power is able to increase its majority. The situation worsened as more moderate GOP legislators north of Interstate 95 lost elections in once-safe districts.

Hopes fade for majority control

Cynics and some Democrats would also suggest that the GOP’s desire for reform only grew after hopes faded for majority control of the state Senate.

Gaps in statehouse coverage have not gone unnoticed. Report for America has awarded a grant to Delaware Public Media for a reporting position, with the radio station and digital operation to raise the rest.

The final factor is the shrunken ranks of legislative reporters. Currently, the News Journal has a lone reporter handling Legislative Hall, with the Associated Press correspondent handles a variety of stories that include news from Chancery Court. The Delaware State News covers Legislative Hall but has long been a lean operation that never embedded a reporter within state government.

Other reporters parachute in during the session but have multiple priorities. The biggest gap comes in the lack of institutional knowledge that comes over the years and in having contacts from legislators, staffers and others around Legislative Hall and state agencies.

Republican legislators have a point. But their criticism won’t change a “reporting desert” that has been years in the making. Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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