BROOKE: The number of reporters from regional papers covering the federal government has taken a steep dive. The Regional Reporters' Association in Washington has about seventy members now, down from nearly 200 in the mid-90s. And with so many fewer eyeballs on Washington, whole agencies pretty much work unwatched. For example, one of the largest, the Department of Agriculture, has no regular mainstream newspaper reporters regularly stationed in its press room. There are no full-time reporters covering the Nuclear Regulatory Commission- haven't been for years. And according to a study from the American Journalism Review, the number of beat reporters on the Dept. of Defense, Treasury, even Homeland Security, fell by more than half between 2003 and 2010.
BOB: And so for the rest of this hour we’ll take on three endangered beats. First up, the State House, where increasingly the sun don’t shine.
AMY MITCHELL: Two thirds of audited daily papers do not assign a single reporter to cover the State House...
BOB: Amy Mitchell is Director of Journalism Research for the Pew Research Center.
MITCHELL: That still is twice that of the local television representation. You know local television that more Americans turn to for news on a regular basis. Only 14 percent of local TV stations that carry news assign even a single reporter to cover the State House.
BOB: However a paper that doesn't have a reporter doesn't necessarily not have State House coverage. The wire services, principally the Associated Press does yeoman's work.
MITCHELL: About 14 percent of State House reporters are coming wire services. One question that arises with that is the degree to which that content may be reported about at a broader level, looking across the whole state rather, than a very local perspective.
BOB: If legislation effects your local schools, but not the majority of the counties in the state, the chances are that the AP won't cover it at all, let's say.
MITCHELL: There's less of a watchdog roll if you will. We have seen in some recent survey data that the public's value of the watch dog role has actually grown in recent years. 68 percent say that that role that the press plays they feel has kept legislators from corruptive activities. And that's an increase of 10 percentage points compared to just two years prior.
BOB: Now the same digital revolution that has played havoc with the business model of newspapers has also created opportunities for smaller online outlets to publish, and some of them fill in some of the gap.
MITCHELL: These non-traditional outlets now account for a greater portion of full-time reporters than do local television outlets. In fact, the Texas Tribune, which is a non-profit has the largest news bureau of any outlet in the country - 15 full-time and then 10 students.
BOB: Kind of apprentices. Tell me about students.
MITCHELL: Well we found about 220 students that are covering state government at any one time. And a number of journalism schools that are building this into their program. The University of Maryland for example. University of Montana offers scholarships and credits for students to work with news organizations covering this beat. It can in many ways help assist the work that one or two full-time reporters is able to do for that organization.
BOB: Which is great, but almost by definition these youngest of young reporters lack any of the institutional memory and maybe even the basics civics to do the job of an experienced statehouse hand. But something's better than nothing.
MITCHELL: And that's why working in combination maybe the ideal way to do it because not only are you able to get a few other people present in rooms but you also may be instilling in these students a sense of the value or the importance of what occurs here on a day-to-day basis.
BOB: But then there's the state governments themselves. Which have an interest I suppose in being covered. How have they tried to fill in the gaps.
MITCHELL: The national conference of state legislators used to bring together journalists to brief on a regular basis about legislation that was going to be happening across different states in the country. They'd have this conference once a year. And as fewer and fewer reporters started to coming to that conference they then switched and began putting out their own information and their own news services.
BOB: Of course government agencies covering themselves doesn't necessarily amount to sunlight.
MITCHELL: Even the press secretaries themselves have said that the public isn't getting informed from this kind of content in the way that they used to do from more regular reporting that occurred inside news organizations themselves.
BOB: You know, Amy, I am old enough to remember when, not only was there State House coverage -- there was competition in State House coverage which led to some pretty ferocious and wonderful journalism. I gotta assume the competition factor has more or less disappeared from the face of the earth.
MITCHELL: Well it certainly disappeared in a lot of states. There's an example here in the work of the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times who are sharing resources. The bureau chief of the Herald told us, 'I think the absence of competition effects what our editors demand of us. Stories in the past they would want us to be all over. It's a little bit harder for us to make that sell now.
BOB: So less isn't more, less is less.
MITCHELL: Less is less.
BOB: Amy, thank you very much.
MITCHELL: Thank you.
BOB: Amy Mitchell is director of journalism research for the Pew Research Center.