By Lesley Kennedy
Washington, D.C.—When Reid Epstein, national politics reporter at The Wall Street Journal, was working at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel some 10 years ago, 10-15 reporters from around Wisconsin covered state government.
Today, that number is down to around three, a trend that’s plagued nearly all newspapers across the nation.
“It’s bad for democracy. It’s bad for voters. It’s bad for your constituents. It’s bad for our readers,” he says. “But it’s the economic reality of what has happened to news gathering and it really puts a lot more emphasis on the parties and the candidates to get their message out to voters.”
Epstein spoke during the session “Elections and Politics from a Reporter’s Perspective” at NCSL’s Capitol Forum. Though he covers federal campaigns and officials, he says it can’t be assumed that voters know what a state senator does, let alone who that person is or what local ballot issues are important.
“So, I would encourage anybody who is on the ballot, thinking about being on the ballot or running for re-election to engage as much as you can with not just your constituents, but whatever reporters you can find,” he says.
Epstein says the difference between covering the campaigns in 2012 and 2014 and 2016 and 2018 is akin to the difference between before you had children and after you had children.
“Everything changed—the whole concept is different,” he says. “People process politics very differently in the era that started with Donald Trump’s campaign. … The White House is essentially in people’s living rooms and people’s heads and it’s inescapable in a way that we just didn’t see prior to this.”
He points to near-record midterm voting as proof that today’s voters are more energized than in recent elections. But, he adds, whether turnout will continue to rise concurrent with what happened in 2018 remains uncertain. Still, Epstein says he’s already waist-deep in the presidential primary for 2020.
“I was in Iowa last week talking to people and there’s certainly a significant amount of excitement on the Democratic side as far as who among the various 400 candidates are out there,” he says. “… What we saw in the last two years was not just people getting out to vote, but people engaging in the system, and people understanding the importance of not just the federal races, but also the down-ballot races.”
He recalls time spent in the Atlanta suburbs a few weeks before the midterms. “I would show up at events for congressional candidates and in the past, you might see a few dozen activists,” he says. “But what was happening this year was you didn’t just have a candidate for Congress at this event, but you had a candidate for state senate and a candidate for state assembly and, in some cases, candidates for school boards and city councils, all engaged in the same process.”
Of course, with 2020 a presidential election year, he concedes federal contests will draw the most media attention.
“People will know everything there is to know about Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden and Corey Booker and Beto O’Rourke and the dozens other who choose to run. But whether they learn about the candidates for state senate or state assembly or local offices is going to be much more incumbent on the candidates than ever before. One, because you’ll be competing with the presidential race, but two, because we’ve seen a real dilution in local press.”
Now, about those reports of fake news. Epstein says the way he tries to combat what’s become a rallying cry by some against the press, is to try to talk to as many smart people as he can to determine the state of the race or the issues at hand. He also does his best to get things right.
“It’s very important for people who work at legitimate news outlets to not get things wrong, whether it’s getting small facts wrong or getting the breadth of a story wrong,” he says. “Because if you work at the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune or the Rockford Register-Star, people have some level of faith in your organization that you’re going to get it right.”
Lesley Kennedy is a web editor at NCSL.