The new legislative session in Olympia is off to a fast start, with a blizzard of bills being dumped in the hopper during the opening days. Some proposals deal with arcane issues and don’t generate big headlines, but many could have profound effects on the state’s future.
Covering any state legislature is a daunting task. There are a lot of players, not just the elected officials but also their staffs, appointed state officials and employees, lobbyists, witnesses and other operatives and supplicants. Committee meetings, party caucuses, sidebar discussions and cocktail conversations are where much of the action happens before any proposal gets as far as a hearing or ultimately a decision by legislators.
Being well-sourced, familiar with the process and able to sort out what is going somewhere and what isn’t are all necessary skills of a legislative reporter. That’s why news organizations tend to rely on veteran legislative reporters for coverage.
In recent years, coverage of state legislatures has dropped off dramatically around the country as newspapers and other news organizations slash staffs and look for more economical ways of getting news out of the capital. That usually means less attention being paid to processes that any state’s voters should be fully informed about.
The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA), which represents the state’s weekly papers, has stepped in to help fill that gap through the auspices of the WNPA Foundation, a separate nonprofit. Since the 2011 legislative session, the WNPA Foundation has partnered with the University of Washington School of Communications in providing scholarships for UW journalism students and others to do full-time, supervised reporting on Olympia.
The program helps train aspiring journalists and also provides constant coverage of legislative goings-on. The interns file reports on issues of interest to rural or suburban communities. The stories are available to all 100-plus community newspapers in WNPA. The students are mentored both by UW staff and by experienced WNPA editors and publishers who serve as volunteer mentors. Interns receive a stipend of $3,000.
This year, Sandy Stokes – former publisher and editor of the La Conner Weekly News, and a veteran news reporter before that – is directing the WNPA bureau’s coverage.
There are four WNPA interns – three from the University of Washington, one from Washington State University – covering the Legislature this year. They are already generating lots of stories – several were in last week’s Methow Valley News – that are distributed to WNPA member newspapers around the state.
That means small weeklies like this one that couldn’t possibly cover the Legislature, or afford to buy syndicated coverage, have extraordinary access to the daily happenings in Olympia. That benefits readers around the state. WNPA member newspapers also can request that the bureau cover stories and issues that are specific to their circulation areas.
The WNPA Foundation draws on funds from an endowment, and also raises money through live and silent auctions at the WNPA’s annual convention. The foundation board is made up of WNPA members and other industry and academic professionals from around the state.
Additionally, the WNPA Foundation each year provides funding to place summer interns at member newspapers around the state. According to the WNPA website, “Since the first internship scholarship was awarded in 1989, hundreds of students have spent part of a summer as a WNPA Foundation intern at a community newspaper in Washington. The hands-on experience prepares them to contribute effectively early in their careers as journalists.”
The foundation also supports the Educator-in-Residence program to provide high school and college level teachers with hands-on work experiences at community newspapers. Since 2000, the foundation has funded more than 25 Educators in Residence. Another foundation effort is the Publisher-in-Residence program, launched in 1981. Community newspaper publishers visit university journalism programs, spending an afternoon or up to three days.
That’s a lot for a relatively small organization to take on, mostly through volunteer efforts with the invaluable assistance of our hard-working WNPA staff. This year, I am president of the WNPA Foundation board, which means I have some responsibility for not only keeping the Olympia internship and other programs going, but also looking for ways to keep them vital in the future. It’s a challenge, especially in the changing journalism landscape.
We will carry as much of the WNPA Olympia bureau’s coverage as we can, space permitting, especially stories that are especially relevant to our readers. As a reader, you get that benefit at no extra cost. But if you are interested in supporting the WNPA Foundation’s work, you know where to find me.