Legislative Coverage, StateImpact Style

Here they come! It’s time for some lawmakin’.

Some of you have one year of covering the legislature for StateImpact under your belts. For states like Texas, where the legislature convenes every other year, this will be a first spin through. Either way, it should be an interesting ride. Odd-year sessions following an election are when the bulk of state legislative business gets done. And it blows by fast. So be ready!

Here are some ideas on how to be thinking about covering the legislature in a StateImpact sort of way.  

Before the legislature convenes

  • Interview key leaders about what to expect on your beat. Interviews with the governor, House speaker and Senate leader obviously generate the most interest. But don’t overlook key committee chairs or backbenchers who may be spokespeople for issues on your beat. This will help you get sourced at the Capitol while creating good content. And it’s excellent material to get in the can before the holidays, so you can schedule Q&A posts online or two-ways on-air for the holiday lull.      Check Out: StateImpact Idaho’s very fine guide to the 2012 legislature. Along with lawmaker Q&As, they had information on how to contact your legislator and the lowdown on how lobbyists register.
  • Identify the biggest debate that’s about to break out on your beat and inform it. You’re probably already picking up buzz about what the big issues will be in 2013. Find one of them and work on explainers that can be the go-to place for understanding once the debate begins in earnest. This is a job that is a lot like how we approached election coverage. Your topic page on the issue(s) you select should be the clearest, most accessible source of information anyone will find on it — and they will find it because you will make it SEO-friendly.
  • Update your topic pages! You already do this, of course. But now is a good time to think through what topic pages you already have that may see a surge of interest once the legislature gets to work. And make them SEO-friendly.
  • Look at the demographics of your legislature. Most states have seen massive amounts of turnover in the legislature over the last two election cycles. By one estimate, two-thirds of all state legislators in the U.S. are no more than two years into the job. Slicing and dicing who these folks are in your state will help you — and your readers and listeners — get to know them. Do your lawmakers look like your state in terms of race, gender, income, education, and industry they work in?  Probably not. Caution: This kind of analysis can lead you astray from your beat, so choose what you’re looking at carefully.    Check Out: Chronicle of Higher Education’s “How Educated Are State Legislators?”
  • Track influence. Most states have rules around lobbyist disclosure and campaign finance. If you’re not already familiar with them in your state, now is a good time to get acquainted with what data are available. May help with stories on lobbying and special interest influence later.
  • Events! Just before the legislature meets is a good time to hold anything from a panel discussion to a happy hour to talk about what to expect from the legislature. This sort of thing appeals to the policy insiders part of your audience — one of your core communities.     Check Out: StateImpact Oklahoma’s 2012 State Budget Roadshows, Texas Tribune’s post-election pre-session panel


Once the legislature convenes

  • Don’t cover process. The demise of statehouse journalism has a dirty little secret: A lot of what we’ve lost was crap to begin with. You’d be amazed how many stories were like: “Committee vote on HB 487 scheduled for Tuesday.” Only a handful of legislators and lobbyists care about that. And they already know when the vote is, anyway. StateImpact cares less about the logistics of legislation than the question of why it matters.
  • Don’t cover bills. Cover problems. When you set out to do a story about SB 45, it points you in predictable directions: Proponents say yay, opponents say nay. But if you do stories about the problem SB 45 seeks to address, that unlocks all kinds of insightful story angles. How have other states tried to solve this problem? What does the research say about this problem? What forces are contributing to this problem? Have efforts to solve this problem produced unintended consequences elsewhere?
  • Spend some time at the capitol. Yes, StateImpact is demonstrating a new way to cover state government. But the reality is that during the sprint of a legislative session, many of the people you might want to reach for certain stories are at the capitol. In some cases, going to the capitol will be the only way you can get any time with them. So, go! But go with a purpose. And do your best to resist the pull of the pack of statehouse reporters whose purpose is different from yours.
  • Connect debates to real people. The flip side of going to the Capitol. Our stories are about the effect of state policy on people. Sometimes you’ll find affected people, “citizen lobbyists,” at the capitol. Often, you’ll have to go far away from the capitol to tell the story. When I sent a Stateline reporter to Indiana last year to cover the right-to-work debate, I told her to spend half her time at the Capitol and half her time anywhere other than Indianapolis talking to regular workers and businesses about what the debate meant to them. (Here’s her story.)
  • Keep your topic pages updated! The story some of your topic pages have to tell may change in large or small ways as bills become law. Keep them up to date!
  • State of the State speeches. A quick scan of last year’s analytics suggest that live-blogging the speech is not worth the effort, at least in terms of WordPress traffic. Maybe some Twitter, but otherwise, spend your time being the first and best place to synthesize takeaways and say what the guv’s agenda means for your beat.       Check Out: StateImpact Ohio’s Gov. Kasich’s State of the State Speech: Five Things He Said About Education
  • Curate a debate. Is there a particularly interesting question before the legislature that’s relevant to your beat? Consider asking a handful of knowledgeable people to debate it. Could be as a series of moderated guest blogs, a radio feature, a web video or a live event, or some combination of several of those things. Look for a range of voices, ideally people who speak to your core communities. We’ve already hacked a rough prototype for how to do this in WordPress.      Check Out: New York Times Room For DebateNational Journal’s “Expert” blogs
  • Fact check the debate. Are lawmakers making ridiculous claims on an issue on your beat? Research the facts and provide the context that usually goes missing when big legislative debates get going.      Check out: Politifact New HampshirePolitifact Texas
  • Give legislative coverage only as much effort as it deserves.  The legislature is only one body that makes state policy. StateImpact has had some of its greatest successes dissecting the work of lower-profile institutions of state government — utility commissions, railroad commissions, education departments and the like. If the legislature is working on issues critical to your beat, subjects that you want  to own, by all means cover them! But don’t overdo it if it doesn’t feel warranted.

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