This story was first published in Post Alley on June 6, 2023.
A month ago, a free internet publication began news coverage of state government in Olympia. Like a newspaper, it has new stories every day. On a recent day, you could read about Mark Mullet, Issaquah Democrat, announcing his campaign for governor, and about the House lawmaker who wants Mullet’s seat in the State Senate. You could read about state parks, water pollution, wildlife management, food stamps, a law against domestic violence and the history of a statue honoring soldiers who died in World War I.
Statehouse coverage in Olympia is in a journalism drought. Twenty years ago, the Capitol campus had two old wooden houses for resident press, one blue and one white. When the legislature was in session, the houses were stuffed with more than two dozen reporters. The Times, Post-Intelligencer, Spokesman-Review, News-Tribune, Everett Herald, Tri-City Herald, the Associated Press — all of them were there, shoehorned into former bedrooms and closets with desks, laptops and stacks of papers.
As newspapers have shrunk, so has the capital press corps. The old houses are gone. In terms of news, much of government has been left to cover itself, on web pages, or is covered by organizations representing industry, labor, environmentalists, political parties and ideologies — each with an institutional bias.
Across the country, as coverage by the commercial print media — and television also — has collapsed, there have been various efforts to start up internet publications. In the last five years, the leader in this effort has been States Newsroom, which has now come to Washington.
The founder, director and publisher of States Newsroom is Chris Fitzsimon. In 2004, he founded NC Policy Watch, a Democratic-leaning think tank in North Carolina, then a Republican state. (Its powerful Republican senator, Jesse Helms, had retired the year before.) By 2017, Fitzsimon’s interest had turned to the news coverage of state government — the level of government, he says, that affects Americans the most and is covered the least. He transformed NC Policy Watch into a news operation. In 2019, he launched States Newsroom and began setting up news operations across the country.
States Newsroom now has 33 of them, each with a different name —Alaska Beacon, Daily Montanan, Nevada Current, Oregon Capital Chronicle, Idaho Capital Sun and so on. The Washington State Standard is named in honor of a newspaper that covered Olympia in the era before statehood.
At the start, States Newsroom was helped by the Hopewell Fund. It has since raised money from hundreds of donors. Earlier this year, the Pew Charitable Trusts transferred its nonprofit Stateline news service to States Newsroom, along with a $3-million grant.
Fitzsimon’s business connections have prompted some to pin a political label on States Newsroom. The Hopewell Fund is progressive. The company that handles States Newsroom’s public relations, SKDK, worked for the Biden-Harris campaign in 2020, and various Democratic campaigns in 2022. Wikipedia’s entry on States Newsroom says its news outlooks have “progressive editorial outlooks.”
I asked Fitzsimon about that. “Wikipedia is an interesting animal,” he replied, with a dismissive chuckle. “Our mission at States Newsroom is to ensure everyone has access to fact-based, high-quality reporting. Our editorial policy is center-left, maybe, but our news policy is straight down the middle. We work really hard to do straight-up journals. Our journalism speaks for itself.”
I’ve done both news and opinion in my newspaper career and at Post Alley, and know the difference. Occasionally the Standard has a story that could be defined in a conservative way or a progressive way. The Standard is likely to choose the progressive way, as are most major newspapers. But on most stories, Fitzsimon’s outlet in Olympia has been “straight down the middle.”
The two reporters who have begun the new website are news people. The senior reporter, Jerry Cornfield, was the Everett Herald’s man in Olympia for 20 years. Laurel Demkovich, was the statehouse reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review. A third reporter is coming soon. The editor, Bill Lucia, was executive editor at RouteFifty.com, an online journal in Washington, D.C., written for state and local government people. He is a graduate of the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington and a former editor at the Seattle website Crosscut.
Lucia and his staff choose the stories at the Standard. They aim to have several new ones every day, plus stories from neighboring states imported from States Newsroom’s office in Washington, D.C. Money to pay salaries, including medical coverage and a retirement program, comes from the central office. “I want to make sure that we provide benefits and a salary level that is respectable,” Fitzsimon says.
At last count, States Newsroom had 167 journalists on staff around the country. The operation is funded by donors. It accepts no donations from for-profit corporations, though it does from unions, one of which (“a small one,” says Fitzsimon) is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Whether to accept donations from interested sources, and how much, is a problem inherent in the donor-supported business model.
A larger question is whether this model is sustainable. Fitzsimon points out that the model works for hospitals and symphony orchestras. The American people, he says, “are going to have to move to an idea that journalism is part of the public good and part of democracy.” Of course, hospitals and symphony orchestras work hard to drum up donations, and they also charge customers. States Newsroom has a smaller footprint. It charges nothing, and it offers its work to local newspapers freely.
States Newsroom, which is backed by hundreds of donors, is still in the process of seeing what works. “I’m not sure the business model will be the same in 10 years but philanthropy will be a part of it,” Fitzsimon says.
His immediate goal is to increase States’ Newsroom’s network to 40 states. It has stayed out of several states with nonprofit newsrooms already producing internet newspapers, including the Texas Tribune, Connecticut Mirror, VTDigger (Vermont), Maine Beacon, Mississippi Today, New York Focus and WyoFile (Wyoming), preferring to negotiate story-sharing arrangements with them.
Fitzsimon has moved into in several states with existing nonprofit ventures doing journalistic investigations, such as the local Investigate West, because States Newsroom doesn’t do long-term projects. Says Fitzsimon, “Our folks do daily reporting.”
— Reported by Bruce Ramsey