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State Capitol Reporters Raised Stink About Restricted Access, But How Open Are Their Ranks?



For 16 days during this General Assembly session, members of the news media were outraged that state Sen. Tommy Norment, an iconoclastic Republican from Williamsburg, kicked political reporters off the Senate floor.

Press groups at the state and national level decried the policy, editorial writers huffed and puffed, and Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro took to carrying around binoculars to watch the proceedings from the balcony, to which reporters were sent.

When Norment reversed his decision and restored floor access to reporters Feb. 1, the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association issued a statement saying, “Denying reporter access to the Virginia Senate floor session was a mistake that could have been avoided; restoring it was the right thing to do.”

But the brouhaha also brought forth discussion of a little-known policy: Not all news media are allowed access to the Senate floor. Their colleagues in the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association serve as the gateway.

For years, a small group of political reporters operating through the association has kept bloggers, part-time correspondents and freelance journalists out of choice spots with access to legislators.

To get access, a journalist must be a member of the association for a fee of $55. According to bylaws, membership is open only to “full-time, paid correspondents” whose primary job is covering state government.

The association consists of 24 members who represent such mainstream outlets as the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Associated Press, the Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot (whose parent company owns Style). They decide who meets those qualifications and make recommendations for credentialing to the General Assembly.

The whole concept is outdated, says Charlottesville blogger Waldo Jaquith, who serves as director of U.S. Open Data and is adviser to the Sunlight Foundation.

“In 2016, the line between ‘blogger’ and ‘journalist’ is no longer meaningful,” Jaquith says. “The Capitol press corps has withered to almost nothing over the past decade. They’re a pale imitation of what they once.”

Jim Bacon, the publisher of Bacon’s Rebellion, a wonkish blog that covers state policy issues -- to which this reporter served as a contributor -- had this to say in an email about the association: “After all their self-righteous fury at Norment for banishing reporters from the Senate floor, it takes a lot of nerve for them to turn around and refuse accreditation to bloggers! Roast them alive!”

Jim Hoeft, editor in chief of the conservative blog Bearing Drift, says he worked to get bloggers credentialed for years. “We feel that we’re treated like second-class citizens by the press,” he says, “but we’re actually citizens who give a shit.”

Responding to the concerns, Times-Dispatch political reporter Jim Nolan, who’s completing three years of service on the association board, most recently as president, says changes may be afoot. The group is scheduled to meet Wednesday to choose a new president.

“We are in the process of reviewing VCCA membership bylaws in recognition of the changing media landscape,” Nolan says. “We welcome input in this review.”

The ultimate authority in accrediting journalists and allowing access in state legislatures rests with governments, which handle such matters in different ways. Two states, Washington and Virginia, have let journalists deal with the issues themselves.

But as the digital revolution has turned traditional journalism upside down, leading to layoffs of veteran reporters and editors, it’s become more difficult to define journalists. In some cases, such as one in San Diego, it’s led to lawsuits by free-lancers who say they were unfairly denied credentials.

All of the newspapers whose reporters are members of the Virginia correspondents association have undergone major layoffs since the late 1990s. Journalism has morphed into independent reporters who file on blogs or Facebook.

“Protecting their membership from new media might have made sense 10 years ago,” Jaquith says, “but at this point the Capitol press corps is a club so exclusive that there’s a plausible future in which it has no members.”

Lowell Feld, editor of the progressive Blue Virginia blog, says that many bloggers are political veterans with just as keen of an understanding of the issues as anyone else.

It’s unclear what changes the association might make. One issue is how it would accommodate serious untraditional reporters while dealing with lobbyists trying to masquerade as reporters. But for now, bloggers and freelancers are relegated to the legislative galleries with the rest of the public.

Editor's note: A previous version of the story said Jim Nolan served a three-year term as president. But his three years of service included other positions.

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