Kansas legislators should be as accommodating as possible to media organizations that provide coverage of their work in Topeka, including continuing to provide free space in the Capitol for those news organizations to use.
Members of the Legislative Coordinating Council, which includes the top Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers, voted this week to direct staff to draft a policy on how requests for media space in the Capitol should be handled. At least one member of the council, House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, R- Olathe, said the policy of providing free space to for-profit news organizations should be reconsidered.
“I’m fine with the Kansas Broadcasters Association, a nonprofit; the Kansas Associated Press, a nonprofit; college students; public broadcasting,” Schwab said. “But when you bring a for-profit media into the building and you give them free space — and let’s be honest, sometimes they lobby when it comes to freedom of information, Kansas open meetings, or even the publication of notices — these are the same organizations that suddenly become lobbying firms.”
The basement of the Capitol includes eight offices currently used by the media. Full disclosure — the Lawrence Journal-World is one of the for-profit news organizations that use a Capitol office. The others include the Kansas City Star, Wichita Eagle, Topeka Capital-Journal and Hawver’s Capitol Report. Nonprofits with Statehouse offices include The Associated Press and Kansas Public Radio.
The review of the policy was prompted when a group of television stations known as the KSN network requested space in the building to launch a full-time Statehouse bureau. That network includes KSNT-TV in Topeka, KSNW-TV in Wichita, and KSNF-TV, which serves the Joplin, Mo., and Pittsburg markets.
The KSN Network request should be celebrated — it is almost unheard of for a media organization to add a Statehouse bureau. The opposite is far more common.
A 2014 Pew Research Center study showed that the number of full-time statehouse reporters in the United States declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, as newspapers, which account for nearly 40 percent of all statehouse reporters, found it harder and harder to justify keeping their statehouse bureaus open amid staff reductions prompted by increasing financial challenges.
Kansas had eight full-time Statehouse reporters as of 2014, a ratio of one reporter for every 356,640 Kansans. That ranked Kansas 25th among the 50 states.
Newspapers like the Journal-World are members of the Kansas Press Association, which does advocate in the Legislature for open records, open meetings and public notices. But it’s a stretch for Schwab to say Statehouse bureaus become lobbying firms. Rather, the bureaus are focused solely on the very important role of providing day-to-day news coverage of state government and Legislative sessions.
Charging rent for media space in the Capitol will only hasten the demise of media statehouse bureaus. That would be a travesty. The coverage of state government the media provide is vital to Kansans and legislators would be wise to look to enhance and expand that coverage, not make it harder to provide.