Two decades ago the major television stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego maintained full-time news bureaus in Sacramento to cover California government. Today not a single TV station outside Sacramento itself has a resident correspondent assigned to monitor the governmental affairs of the nation's largest state. San Francisco's KRON-TV closed the last out-of-town bureau late last year.
In past, simpler times a newspaper might be tempted to gloat that a considerable segment of its media competition had decided to leave a broad area of coverage primarily to print journalism. But that cannot be the case today. The need for an informed public is too important, and many of California's 28 million residents rely on television as their primary source of news. Too much is at stake. Television provides a dimension and an impact that print journalism cannot. As Harry Snider of Consumers Union told The Times' Dennis McDougal, public officials from the governor on down "know that they can ride out a print story or a radio sound bite . . . . But none of them want to be caught giving away the farm on the 6 o'clock news in Los Angeles or San Francisco."
TV has an impact not just in times of big stories or scandal. In the past, such big network-owned stations as KNBC-TV, KABC-TV and KCBS-TV assigned excellent correspondents like Warren Olney, Bob Simmons and Howard Gingold to Sacramento. Their presence and expertise on a variety of state issues represented a source of competition within the Sacramento press corps that now is lacking. Everyone suffers.
KNBC News Director Tom Capra said that cost and the demands of local news coverage brought about his station's closure of its Sacramento bureau six years ago. He said that KNBC gets all the Sacramento news that it needs from wire services and free-lancers while dispatching its own reporters from Los Angeles on big-story days. But that is no substitute for having a savvy correspondent on the scene who is able to follow the evolution of complicated stories on a day-to-day basis.
Economics cannot be ignored, but the television stations also bear a public responsibility in exchange for their licenses to use the air waves. The networks still manage to maintain bureaus of more than 100 people each in Washington, but their local offspring decline to spend enough to keep a single correspondent in Sacramento. That's the way it is. And that's too bad.