A room that for the past 30 years has hummed with the staccato typing on keyboards as reporters scurried to meet deadlines has been refurbished and hollowed out to accommodate rows of chairs and a large conference table.
The remodeling job cost about $46,000. And the room is no longer a media headquarters; instead it be used by Senate Republicans to hold caucus meetings.
For the foreseeable future, the media will be operating from a site about a block away, where they moved last year after the Senate ended the leases for space in the press room. The media outlets paid rent on the space.
Howie Fischer, who has covered the Capitol since 1982, said moving the media off-site created an additional barrier to providing news.
“Ultimately, it is going to make it more difficult for us to be the eyes and ears of the people who can’t be here five days a week, 52 weeks a year,” he said. “If we can’t monitor, if it is more difficult for us to monitor the goings on, then we can’t tell our readers and listeners and viewers what is going on, and they can’t hold their legislators accountable.”
There are additional options for the press if lawmakers decide to allow the press back in the Senate. Fischer mentioned two: the phone room at the foot of the stairwell in the Senate basement and the back of Senate Hearing Room 1.
Right now, though, there are no plans to clear out space for the media, which occupied different rooms in the Senate and House for much of the time since the buildings opened in 1960.
Senate President Bob Burns said the media will be able to adjust to the changes. After all, he said, it’s the “age of technology.”
Burns said it will be easy for him to call reporters when necessary. “I got your phone number in my pilot,” he said.
Reporters who used to toil and conduct interviews in the Senate press office said they have had to make big adjustments in the way they cover legislative action.
A press room in the same building where the action takes place had obvious advantages. Easy access to lawmakers was one such advantage.
With the press room on the first floor of the Senate building, lawmakers and lobbyists often dropped by to provide information or ask for information from reporters.
Because lawmakers and reporters worked in the same building, they bumped into each other regularly, allowing for better access.
Proximity also allowed reporters to be more efficient. They could watch multiple committee hearings, and then step out of the press room to catch a person who had just given testimony.
The same was true in the case of a breaking news event: Media could step out of their office, cover the news and get back to their desks to file stories.
Now they have to walk for at least five minutes to get to the Legislature and walk back to file stories.
Radio reporters are particularly affected by the change.
The old Senate press room had a closed-circuit TV system that allowed reporters to watch committee and floor action. The closed-circuit TV produced good quality audio, something that radio reporters will have to do without in their new press room in the League of Arizona Cities and Towns building.
Barbara Villa of Arizona News Radio said she could listen to legislative action via the Internet, but the audio quality is not as good. “I get blips and pops,” she said.
Villa said Gov. Jan Brewer’s state of state address on Jan. 11 was the real test of how things would work. Without closed-circuit TV to extract quality audio and without an office nearby to edit the audio, it took much longer to send her report to the station, she said.
“So we had to accept the fact that from 1:45 p.m. until way late in the afternoon, (there was) no audio from me. And I couldn’t do it because that five-minute walk provided enough of a barrier to keep me from coming back over here, to my office to put it in,” she said.
There are plans to extend the Legislature’s closed-circuit TV system to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, where most of the Capitol media have set up shop.
Ron Bellus, general manager of Arizona Capitol Television, said he is waiting for word from the Arizona Department of Administration, which is doing the research into the matter.
The League of Arizona Cities and Towns, which also wants to be hooked up to the closed-circuit TV system, is expected to pay for the cost of installation.