“The number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent,” according to the Pew Research Center. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
“The number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent,” according to the Pew Research Center. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you really want to get depressed about democracy in the U.S., take a look at Reid Wilson’s summary of “The precipitous decline of state political coverage.” We’ve known that state and local news was the big loser in the new media landscape. But still, the Pew Research Center has a study showing that “the number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures for daily newspapers has declined 35 percent.”

The conclusion is pretty straightforward: No one is keeping an eye on government in most states. As Wilson details, there simply aren't enough reporters to go around. So instead of the press digging up what the public needs to know, most of what’s reported is spin produced by politicians and interest groups, often by people who used to be reporters.

I’m an optimist about the effects of change on the news at the national level. I’d guess that the last two presidential elections were probably the best-covered ever. I’m just about certain that the Affordable Care Act has been the best covered public-policy story. For readers who want to know what’s happening with health care, climate, immigration, civil liberties or Afghanistan, today’s media menu is vastly superior to what was available 30 years ago.

But at the state level, we’ve gone from day to night, and we are headed toward darkest midnight. There doesn’t seem to be much of a local market for the kinds of reporting and analysis that have emerged at the national level.

If there's any hope it’s not going to be found in the old “neutral” journalism model. The one area of growth (albeit mild so far) appears to be the partisan press. That’s not necessarily bad. At the national level, there’s been excellent reporting on health care, for example, by Jonathan Cohn of the liberal New Republic and Philip Klein from the conservative Washington Examiner. The best reporters on both sides are skeptical of what politicians say, and they dig to find out what’s really happening, even as they make clear they have a dog in the fight they’re covering.

On the other hand, even as the partisan press generates plenty of original information at the national level, it coexists with a vigorous “neutral” media. It’s not clear how a model of a smaller partisan press along with an atrophied neutral media could be reproduced in the states. And though the worst of the “neutral” press can be awfully mediocre, the worst of the partisan press can be downright horrible, with no standards at all. So if that’s the good news …

Thoughtful observers have seen this coming for more than a decade, and so far no one has come up with a solution. It’s a real setback for democracy.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.