Why covering the state Capitol is a Herald priority

In a budget of billions, it was a relatively small amount.

Still, last week the state cut checks to state senators for $15,570 in per diem payments for the first week of the special session.

Even though those senators hadn’t met even once.

Nineteen senators put in for the maximum amount of $90 a day. Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield noted the expenses in a blog posted Wednesday on HeraldNet.com. By the time the item made it into his Thursday newspaper column, many of the senators had called the accounting office to return their checks.

Watching the money — big and small — is an important aspect of Cornfield’s job as our full-time Olympia correspondent. He’s also charged with explaining how issues in Olympia affect readers in Snohomish County.

When it became clear that gay marriage would dominate this year’s legislative session, Cornfield noted early that the deciding vote was likely to come from one of a handful of Snohomish County lawmakers.

And it did — Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, provided the key 25th vote

“Readers make it clear that they expect their newspaper to keep an eye on government,” Herald executive editor Neal Pattison said. “And there’s a subset that’s hungry for political news — the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Covering Olympia — from explanatory journalism to hard-digging stories — takes time and experience. Cornfield, who lives in Olympia, has covered the Legislature and politics for The Herald for eight years.

Dave Ammons, who covered state government for the Associated Press for 37 years, is now spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed. He’s noted a slow decline in the number of journalists covering the Legislature and state agencies.

“The first thing I noticed was electronic journalism — TV and radio — eventually drifted away,” Ammons said. “They come off-and-on for big stories or sexy stories but, as Marty Brown, the state’s budget director says, they stopped coming because the marble doesn’t catch on fire.”

Over the past few years of economic struggles, newspapers have assigned fewer reporters to cover state government — even when the Legislature is in session.

It’s a mistake, because state decisions have such far-reaching impact, Ammons said.

“Just about everything of any significance to Washington families comes through Olympia,” he said. “Whether it’s good schools, higher education, transportation, health care, the safety net programs, prison policy.”

Or as Rowland Thompson puts it, what happens in Olympia has fairly long tentacles.

“Government in a lot of ways is about money coming in and money going out,” said Thompson, executive director for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, a trade group. “Who gets it and who pays it.”

He pointed to a bill before the state Senate in the special session involving health care for teachers and other school employees. About 1,000 concerned teachers showed up at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish last week to discuss the issue with lawmakers.

“The kind of thing that would cause 1,000 teachers to show up and protest is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen at the local level,” Thompson said. “It happens at the state level.”

While some newspapers rely more and more on wire services, Thompson praised The Herald for maintaining a reporter in Olympia. He said news stories filed by the Associated Press almost never highlight Everett- or Snohomish County-specific angles.

“The only way you can have an electorate informed about how issues down here are important is to have someone who actually writes about how the issues affect them,” Thompson said.

Each week, Here at The Herald provides an inside peek at the newspaper — its people and the work they do. Is there something you’d like to know? Send your idea to Executive Editor Neal Pattison, npattison@heraldnet.com.

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