The Public Publisher: A letter from Olympia

Dispatches on politics, journalism and reality from our state capital.
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Wednesday's Republican legislative media availability at the State Capitol in Olympia

Dispatches on politics, journalism and reality from our state capital.

Olympia has emerged in recent months as Crosscut’s fastest growing market. Almost a quarter of Crosscut readers are in our state capital.

Seattle remains our largest market with Bellevue and Tacoma close behind, but look at Olympia go.

Crosscut has bet on Olympia coverage, and there seems to be consumer demand. Our state capitol story count has now topped the 100-story mark. This has been in no small part thanks to our two Olympia correspondents, John Stang and Tom James. Our political and policy writers have augmented Stang and James with important stories about the proposed coal terminal, public education and transportation.

Seattle and KIng County politics, business, human services, sports and culture remain very important areas of focus for us. And so is Olympia.

For context, state capital news coverage is suffering a long, steady decline both here in Washington and nationally. (Click to see what's happening with news coverage here in Olympia and here for what's happening nationally in news media.)

But there are bright spots for state public affairs coverage. The Texas Tribune is the largest and most successful state-based online daily. Austin’s daily dose of state capital politics and policy is the Tribune’s sole focus. And they are reaping the rewards of focusing on state capitol intrigue. The Tribune has tremendous readership across the state of Texas and its budget continues to grow.

Founder Evan Smith has said the Tribune is as much a tech company as it is a news organization. His state capitol reporters are "Swiss Army Knives." They are expected to write, blog, Tweet, videotape and podcast. It's all state house all the time.

The Tribune has also made it easy for small Texas newspapers to share their content. With a simple press of the Tribune's “republish” button, readers in Waco, Abilene and El Paso can read state capitol coverage in their local print editions and online.

I’ll admit to having a little Texas Tribune envy.

But are Texas state politics just way more fascinating than Washington state politics? Should someone here be following the Texas Two-step?

Our colleagues at Washington State Wire and Publicola, also online dailies, do a nice job of keeping a studied eye on state government. The Seattle Times, The Olympian, NPR, the AP and the Seattle TV stations also swim upstream by trying to devote resources to Olympia.

But collectively, are we doing enough? Are we engaging the public in the state's business?

To better understand these questions, the Crosscut team decamped to Olympia this week, where we found hotels and friends’ couches. 

On Tuesday night we invited our readers and members to join us for a glass of wine at a favorite lawmakers’ watering hole, the Swing Bar. We wanted to get to know our Olympia readers and members a little better.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, joined us for a candid Q&A about this legislative session, which is about to kick into high gear now that introductions of new policy bills have been cut-off. The hard work will lie in how to fund state government, when the state Supreme Court has ruled in its McCleary decision that legislators and the governor are not yet fully funding public education. A $1 billion increase in education funding seems to be the target. A battle of the branches of state government looms.

For now, all eyes are on the state revenue forecast on March 20th.

I pressed Hunter on whether Gov. Inslee’s decision not to present his own budget at the outset of this session has helped or hurt Hunter's role as a Democratic leader and as appropriations committee chair. Hunter said he didn’t need a separate budget from the governor, but he is eager to learn more about his priorities.

Today Crosscut had a chance to sit down with Gov. Inslee to ask him that very question: What are his immediate priorities? (Take a look here at our Daily Troll for his thoughts on coal ports.)

Inslee, smiling and visibly excited after Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's visit today, said his first priority is education; particularly meeting the paramount duty of the state to fully fund education. He seemed to define education as beginning at 3 years-old and continuing into young adulthood with postsecondary and vocational training. "We will make as much progress as humanly possible," he promised. 

His priorities also include making Washington a "magnet" for jobs, transportation improvements, health care and saving the Puget Sound.

But we'll have to wait until after the state budget forecast for any specifics on what that means. 

The Governor does believe that some tax loopholes will have to be eliminated to generate revenues to pay for his ideas. He is particularly animated about eliminating benefits to the oil and gas industry.

On the other side of the Capitol, Republicans met for their weekly media availability. The public is losing confidence in state government, they said, and they need to see reforms alongside increased education and transportation spending. They invited reporters to return in the coming weeeks to hear their transportation and education recommendations.

A lot depends on this legislative session.

Call me sentimental, but every time I visit Olympia I am struck by the visiting school kids who invariably end up sitting in the Capitol Rotunda around lunchtime. The business-suited lawmakers and lobbyists scurry past while the kids sit there looking up at the highest self-supported masonry dome in America.

And I wonder, can Olympia live up to their expectations?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw is a senior director in Microsoft’s strategy group.