A PLCA press corps

The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association: a brief history

When I am done at the end of August, I will have reported with top-flight state political reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Allentown Morning-Call, the Harrisburg Patriot-News and the online-only subscription service Capitolwire.

What unites them all is that they are members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. The nearly 115-year-old organization doesn’t do much to promote itself because it is mostly an informal collection of members from a struggling industry, so I didn’t know much about it when I got here.

I have learned plenty and thought many might be interested, too.

Beginnings

The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association was formed in January 1895, when 25 newsmen decided it was in their interest to coalesce and better cover an expanding state government, led by Colonel Henry Hall, of the old Pittsburgh Times, who was the first presiding officer. Like the government, the news corps had grown, from five reporters who regularly covered legislative sessions in the 1860s, to 10 in the 1870s, to 19 in 1885, to the original 25 a decade later. There was no central location or system for obtaining news, so even legislators were interested in a single clearing house to which they could send their staffers with information.

So, the original 25 put together a constitution, member ledger and by-laws. This from an organization history (see below for details):

The documents they wrote lasted just two years, destroyed by the fire that swept the old Capitol building in 1897. The organization they founded, however, proved to be more durable. The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, the oldest group of its kind in the United States has lasted more than a century.

The Past

The history of PLCA is, not surprisingly, the history of journalism, by and large. It is a history of technology and social change.

PLCA’s first female members came in 1945: Suzanne Flick of the International News Service and Alice Fox and Betty Heineman of United Press were voted into membership. The newsroom had telegraph and then teletype and then telephone booths installed in successive decades of the first half of the 20th century. At some point in the 1970s, fax machines began being used for reporters to send copy to their editors.

But, as journalism goes, its largest historic shift came in journalistic ethics in the early 1970s, as it did throughout the country after Watergate broke.

Philadelphia Daily News Capitol reporter and PLCA member John M. Baer was the son of John H. Baer who reported from the Capitol for the Harrisburg Patriot early enough that John M. Baer remembers going to pool parties at the governor’s summer residence, where reporters, legislators and administration mixed. Social lives and reporting were one in the same.

This friendships pre-Watergate continued elsewhere. This from the organization history:

In the early 1950s, PLCA acquired a large, new, round card table, provided by Attorney General Charles Margiotti. It was put to good use. Newsmen, as well as departmental press secretaries, staffers, and some elected officials, gathered for a daily game of hearts or poker… “Little Joe” Thompson, press secretary at the Health Department, would sometimes lose his entire weekly paycheck at the games. Among the state’s chief executives, Governor David L. Lawrence was the most frequent participant. He was a regular at the poker table when he was governor from 1959 to 1963.

The card table was removed in the early 1980s to make room for desks, after younger reporters, more business-like and holding a dim view of gambling, began to exercise greater control in the newsroom…

Even a clearer example of the changing waters was the November 1972 decision by the PLCA to stop “the divvy.” For decades, PLCA hosted a legendary Christmas party each year, where legislators, lobbyists and reporters drank and danced and partied together well into the night. The Liquor Control Board would donate literally hundreds of bottles of alcohol. After Christmas, members would choose, in order of seniority, bottles to take home, often taking three or four. Younger reporters in the mid-1960s began questioning the practice and it was banned a few months after a blistering column written by Inquirer reporter Bill Ecenbarger in January 1972.

A much more modern concept of the Fourth Estate, one of independence from its coverage set in, one that remains today.

The Present

Today, the Capitol newsroom houses nearly 30 PLCA members in Room 524 on the Entresol level, where they have been since perhaps as early as 1907, including Room 525 that was annexed in 1917. PLCA pays a nominal annual rent and the newsroom is maintained by the state.

Essentially free rent and upkeep may seem inappropriate, though some members have told me they are there providing a service as much as state legislators are. The Capitol building is, of course, maintained by taxpayers. We are all the tenants of 12.5 million Pennsylvanians.

The group maintains an executive board, which rotates annually, and a board of directors. The current president is Peter Jackson, the AP bureau chief; the vice president is John Micek of the Allentown Morning Call, and the secretary is Chris Lilienthal of Capitolwire.

While members are friendly and cordial and share information, they still are largely competitors in tight quarters, a fascinating dynamic in an increasing age of breaking news. Another tradition that has remained has been an annual group photo of PLCA members. Those photos cover the walls of the newsroom. The brigade of the oldest society of government reporters isn’t well known outside of the region, even, though the group is an affiliate member of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the official trade organization and information clearinghouse for Pennsylvania newspapers since 1925.

It does remain solidly recognized among all those with a foot in the Capitol. With few exceptions, every year since 1895, the PLCA has held a dinner and show, formerly biennial and then annual. To this day, it remains the group’s sole fundraiser, which sponsors the internship program that is paying me. The gridiron event has almost always been home to a roasting of legislators, though the governor has often gotten the opportunity to speak. A ticket to the prized event, now hosted in October, costs nearly $100 and includes a satirical show largely written by PLCA members.

The Internship Program

The PLCA internship program is hardly publicized at all. Instead, it has existed in earnest and in its present form since the 1975 and kept closely to the community of reporters, legislators, and staffers who know most the society. Some system has been set with the celebrated Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University so that there is a representative from that college each year.

Otherwise, today annual notice of the program is sent to larger and regional journalism school recruitment directors – I caught wind of it through an e-mail from an internship adviser at Temple – and spread by members. I didn’t actually apply for the position before Inquirer Capitol writer Amy Worden had spoken to and recommended the program to a professor and mentor of mine.

I am quite thankful for it, 12-hour days during the budget season or not.

Noted members

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Paul Vathis joined the Philadelphia bureau of the Associated Press in January 1946 and, after moving to Harrisburg in 1950, stayed until 1996. In that time, he was one of the AP’s most celebrated photojournalists, winning a Pulitzer in 1962 for a noted shot of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower and being named a finalist in 1987 for the most memorable photograph of one of the most grotesque and upsetting events in modern U.S. political history, the public suicide of State Treasurer Budd Dwyer.

Former President of Time Inc., James Shepley was a PLCA member in the 1930s for United Press and a roommate of a future president of the Associated Press. John Scotzin, who was known as a the dean of the newsroom, worked nearly 60 years… 60 years in the Capitol, covering state government for the AP, the Philadelphia Record and the Harrisburg Evening News from the 1930s until his retirement in 1985. Current Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Brad Bumsted, who worked with Scotzin in the 1980s, told me Scotzin would tell stories of reporting on the “great flood” of Harrisburg in 1933. …Wow.

For me, though perhaps not for others, one of the biggest names to come out of the PLCA is Tom Ferrick. Ferrick is the now retired, former metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a native Philadelphian, former staff member of The Temple News and (nearly) a Temple graduate. I interviewed him for my honors thesis report on the Philadelphia Republican Party. He was the institutional memory for the Inquirer’s editorial board, a caring, thoughtful, respected Philadelphian who was (currently) the last in a long line of exceptional Inquirer columnists, having taken over for Steve Lopez after his departure for the Los Angeles Times. But first, Ferrick was in Harrisburg first for UPI in 1973 and then the Inquirer in following years.

This from the organization history during the 1970s:

[Charles] Madigan went to Moscow for UPI and eventually to the Chicago Tribune. …Among the AP graduates, Dan Biers served in China and southeast Asia, John Daniszewski in eastern Europe and South Africa, Joe Coleman in Japan, and Carl Manning in Mexico City. Carol Morello of the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported from the Middle East and many of the world’s trouble spots. In short, Harrisburg was a breeding ground for many successful journalists…

Novelist Martin Smith, who published more than 30 books, work for the Harrisburg bureau of the Associated Press in the 1960s. Richard Graves also published several fiction works and had his work collected at the Boston University library; he was a PLCA member from 1952 to 1964.

Hiram Andrews, who worked for the Philadelphia North American, soon after became a state representative from Cambria County, eventually being named Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1959 to 1960.

This post relied heavily on the research of Gary Tuma, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette state Capitol reporter from 1989 to 1992 and current spokesman for state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia. On behalf of the PLCA, Tuma wrote of the 100-year history of the organization, published as Covering the Capitol, A Century of News Reporting in Pennsylvania: Centennial History of Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, 1895-1995.