Introducing the Washington State Standard
Welcome to the Washington State Standard, a news publication dedicated to covering how state policy and politics affect the lives of people here in Washington. Since we’re part of a national, nonprofit organization focused on reviving statehouse news coverage around the country, you’ll be able to read our work for free, without running into ads or paywalls. If you’re enjoying it and finding it useful, we hope that you’ll consider chipping in at some point to help support us.
As we look ahead and embark on a new adventure in newsgathering, a glance backward can help to illuminate why we’re undertaking this project and the value in it.
We are, in fact, not the first news operation with Standard in its name to set up shop in Olympia. Rewind to 1860, when Washington was still a territory and its population totaled around 11,600 (it’s now closer to 8 million) and publisher John Miller Murphy established The Washington Standard, the first newspaper in the Olympia region. The paper’s offices, for much of the time it published, were only about 10 blocks from where I sit in our newsroom today.
Murphy would go on to run the Standard for just over 50 years and the paper itself remained in print until 1921. “It was an important element of daily life in Olympia,” Deb Ross, research coordinator for the Olympia Historical Society said by email, describing the newspaper.
The reason I mention the old Standard is not just because of its name. It’s to point out that even when Washington was a territory, and the precursor to state government here was in its young days, there was an appetite among residents for politics and policy news.
The front page of The Washington Standard in 1862, including its Proceedings of the Legislature section. (Washington State Library)
In some of the paper’s earliest editions, you’ll find Proceedings of the Legislature sections. Take Dec. 27, 1862, where this section ran on the front page and flagged legislation like a bill to let the city of Walla Walla raise its taxes, and a proposal for a new ferry on the Yakima River.
A week earlier, a message from the governor printed in the paper began with a plea that lawmakers print more copies of the Territorial Laws. He warned these were in short supply as Washington’s population grew, potentially leaving people uninformed about what the laws said.
Taxes, transportation, transparency. Much has changed in the past 160 years but, at their core, many of the matters government is expected to handle are not so different. Meanwhile, the desire among people here to know what their state government is doing and what it means for them, their families and their communities is still alive as well.
That’s where we at the new Washington State Standard hope to come in — keeping you informed about actions by your elected representatives and others who hold power in the state. We’ll strive to make sure we’re getting perspectives from multiple sides, telling stories from all parts of Washington and including voices from those who have in the past been overlooked.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled lamenting the decline of statehouse reporting across the U.S. The statistics are depressing and I won’t run back through them here. Lately, there are some signs that nonprofits, like us, are helping backfill disappearing newspaper positions.
Overall, though, the gist is this: In an era when states are increasingly hotbeds for controversial and cutting-edge policy, which lobbyists and other interests work aggressively and spend copiously to shape, the number of reporters covering state capitals has shrunk.
In this regard, Washington has fared better than some other states. Still, the ranks of the state Capitol press corps are depleted compared to the past.
David Ammons, who spent nearly four decades with the Associated Press in Olympia, and later worked as the communications director for two secretaries of state, recalls how the press houses on the Capitol campus (which were demolished this year) were often “filled to the rafters” with reporters when the session was in, even through the 1990s and early 2000s.
In past decades, he estimated that there were around 15 reporters who were part of the resident Olympia press corps, and closer to 25 during sessions and special events. During this session, there were fewer than a dozen reporters roaming the halls most days.
“The number of reporters has diminished so much,” Ammons told me recently. He praised the work of those who remain. But he added that there are not enough journalists left in town to cover all the news that takes place, especially when it comes to carrying out investigative work and other accountability-focused projects, or more generally looking beyond the day’s biggest stories. “Having watched the Olympia press corps for over half a century, we’re at a low ebb.”
How far can our four-person team go toward fixing that? I think we can make a significant contribution, especially given the talent and experience of our reporting staff. We hope you’ll follow along in the months ahead to see how we do meeting the mark. Thanks for reading!