Rep. Jason Probst recognizes the potential for political reporting to keep government officials honest.

The Democrat spent 15 years as a reporter, editor and opinion writer for the Hutchinson News before entering the Legislature in 2017.

When newspapers began scaling back reporting resources about a decade ago, Probst said, "one of the phrases I heard a lot that I think is true is, it's a great time to be a corrupt public official because you're going to be able to get by with whatever it is you're doing for quite some time."

Probst applauded an investigative reporting series by The Topeka Capital-Journal that launched in late April as an example of how newspapers can balance real-time coverage demands with time-consuming stories.

Capitol Offenses, which features reporting that puts a magnifying glass to state government, will continue throughout the year. The stories are published in GateHouse newspapers and their websites across Kansas, including the Hutchinson News.

"It's a question of do we want the quality content, do want the fast content, do we try to strike a balance?" Probst said. "People do want the immediacy. They want to know. You can't sit on every story for a week and try to develop it. But there are some stories, similar to what you guys are working on now with the Capitol Offenses series, those need to be done."

Probst joined Tim Carpenter, the Capital-Journal's Statehouse bureau chief, and Jim McLean, a senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, for the latest episode of the Capitol Insider podcast to talk about the ever-shifting dynamics of political reporting.

 

So far, four Capitol Offenses stories have directed attention to concerning actions by government leaders.

A Kansas Department of Corrections official rejected staff and auditor warnings and allowed a dental lab instructor to remain in the state women's prison despite a determination he sexually harassed inmates. The instructor, Tomas Co, now faces seven charges of unlawful sexual contact with the women.

Tom Arpke, who was hired by Gov. Jeff Colyer to be the state's regulatory ombudsman, had his official work station switched from Topeka to his home in Salina so Arpke could pad his income with travel expenses.

"The irony of ironies there is his entire job was to make state government more efficient," McLean said.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback's determination to demolish the Docking State Office Building led officials to enter into long-term leases that will cost millions in annual rent payments. The administration also wasted money on a voided deal to build a new power plant, and the building's future remains unresolved.

The most recent story reveals former Kansas Highway Patrol Superintendent Mark Bruce was forced out following scandals of sexual misconduct and domestic violence involving headquarters personnel.

"Doing big story projects is tough," Carpenter said. "I think front-line reporters feel overwhelmed. In part, it's because you're writing to the internet, you're writing to the web first. It's not like you have the next eight hours to complete the story before anybody in the public's going to see it. You're expected to crank something out promptly, maybe refine it and add something to it later."

In addition to balancing in-depth reporting with daily responsibilities, McLean said, there are increasingly fewer reporters at the Statehouse.

"I have two minds about this, actually," McLean said. "I think the reporting is every bit as good as it's ever been. I think the reporters are skilled. I think they're skilled on multiple platforms."

The Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR and other public radio stations, directs its resources toward statewide issues that fall through the cracks or lack detailed analysis.

McLean pointed to a recent story by Nomin Ujiyediin that explores the public defender system in Kansas, which faces a crisis as court-appointed attorneys resign at an alarming rate. The story took days to research, McLean said.

"What we like to do is to step back and try to do more of those perspective stories," McLean said.

Metrics show people want to read meaningful, well-reported stories that hold public officials accountable, Carpenter said.

"They do want that kind of reporting, and that kind of watchdog look at state government," he said.