Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Online World Transforms Capitol Coverage

Biggest surprise: More journalists than ever may be covering the Capitol.

By - Nov 4th, 2019 11:53 am
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Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

The new 2019-20 Blue Book lists 42 Capitol reporters for news organizations.That’s a lot.

But only about eight reporters consistently work from their desks at the Capitol’s second-floor Dick Wheeler Press Room. It was named for the legendary curmudgeon and tenacious founder of the Wheeler Report, who covered the Capitol from 1972 until his 2011 death.

But there are dozens more covering the Capitol. In fact, the state Blue Book total of 42 is low, for several reasons.

First, major news events bring dozens of reporters and videographers to the Capitol from TV stations across Wisconsin. They, and reporters from UW-Madison’s student newspapers, get daily press passes.

Second, the Blue Book list doesn’t include new online organizations – the conservative Empower Wisconsin (“Badger State’s premiere conservative information hub”), the Center Square (“a newswire service to legacy publishers and broadcasters”) and the liberal Wisconsin Examiner.

Third, the new Blue Book list also does not include the MacIver Institute, which has sued Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to get its staffers all the same media advisories – press releases, statements, appointments and briefing notices – as other news organizations.

It’s fascinating to see how the Capitol press corps has evolved over 25 years. The old news cycles – one in morning, one in the afternoon – have been replaced by 24/7 online deadline pressures.

In the 1995-96 Blue Book, 15 of the 29 Capitol reporters – more than half – worked for newspapers. The Associated Press and Wheeler News Service had three reporters each.

In 1995, other reporters worked for the Wisconsin Radio Network, three; radio station WIBA, two; and a Madison TV station, Wisconsin Public Radio and Madison’s Christian radio station, one each.

This year, just eight of the 42 registered reporters work for newspapers, including the Madison weekly Isthmus and Catholic newspapers, and their online news sites.

The Journal Sentinel, State Journal and Capital Times each registered two reporters, although the Capital Times now has one. The Journal Sentinel is now part of the Gannett chain, which owns 12 Wisconsin newspapers.

Symbolic of the changes in who covers the Capitol this year is the addition of reporters for CBS 58/Telemundo Wisconsin and Spectrum News.

Wisconsin Public Television registered seven reporters; wispolitics.com, four; Madison’s three commercial TV stations, two each, and two radio stations, one each.

Four traditional news organizations – the Associated Press, Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Radio Network and the Wheeler Report – listed two reporters each.

How does this compare to past eras?:

*10 Years Ago. In the 2009-10 Press Room, there was a new category – Internet News Service – in the Blue Book listing of Capitol reporters. It denoted wispolitics.com, started by a former State Journal Capitol reporter in 1999.

Ten years ago, a Madison TV station registered two reporters; two other Madison TV stations, one each. Wisconsin Public TV registered four reporters; Public Radio, three.

Two radio stations listed one reporter each and another – then all-news WTDY – registered three reporters. Wisconsin Radio Network registered four reporters.

The Journal Sentinel had three reporters; State Journal and Capital Times, two, and newspapers in Green Bay and Janesville, one each. Three full-time reporters worked for the Associated Press wire service. Wheeler News Service listed three Capitol reporters; a fourth worked for the Wheeler Report.

*25 Years Ago: In the 1995-96 Press Room, you still had two daily papers in Milwaukee. As of January 1995, the Milwaukee Sentinel (morning paper) and Milwaukee Journal (afternoon paper) each had three full-time reporters covering the Capitol. The Journal added a fourth after UW-Madison’s football and basketball seasons ended.

Sentinel and Journal reporters were trained to compete against each other for news stories, which often meant cutting deals with state officials to get the story first.

But on April 1, 1995, the Sentinel and Journal merged, cutting the number of Capitol reporters for the new morning newspaper in half. The Journal Sentinel and Associated Press then each had three reporters.

In 1995, the Capital Times and State Journal each had two full-time reporters covering state government. And, newspapers in Green Bay, Appleton and Janesville had their own Capitol reporters.

Then, only one Madison-based TV station registered a Capitol reporter. Radio station WIBA registered two; Madison’s Christian radio station and Wisconsin Public Radio, one each. Wheeler News Service and Wisconsin Radio Network listed three reporters each.

What will the list of reporters in the 2029-30 Blue Book look like? Expect a lot more changes.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Conctact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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