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Streaming and archiving legislative sessions a plus for all involved

Many people may have trouble imagining this, but there was a time when the committee meetings and floor sessions of the South Dakota Legislature were not streamed live over the Internet or archived in digital files accessible to anyone with an on...

Terry Woster

Many people may have trouble imagining this, but there was a time when the committee meetings and floor sessions of the South Dakota Legislature were not streamed live over the Internet or archived in digital files accessible to anyone with an online connection.

That time was more than four decades ago. I covered three or four sessions as a newspaper reporter before South Dakota Public Broadcasting began putting cameras in the House and Senate chambers and committee rooms to give citizens a live look at the action and a nightly recap of each day’s events.

Now, according to story written by Bob Mercer from his coverage of the Legislature’s Executive Board, the future of live-streaming of the Legislature is uncertain. The technology being used is outdated, Mercer’s story says. The provider won’t support it in the future, an SDPB official told the E-Board. SDPB has identified a new provider, but it will cost money. Ah, doesn’t it always?

Look, I’m a retired senior citizen living on a fixed income. (I love saying that, especially to my former co-workers who continue to toil on fixed incomes. They know I’m joking.) I don’t like spending money or paying taxes. But if it takes some state money to keep a reliable system available for live and archived legislative action, I’ll pay my share. I think it’s worth it.

I remember what it was like before the cameras came to the Legislature. Oh, sure, there were cameras now and then. Some of the stations sent crews to the Capitol. Those crews joined radio reporters and newspaper reporters and wire service reporters. Those reporters, most of whom I found to be competent, intelligent and dedicated, covered many meetings and issues. Citizens kept up on the Legislature through the written and broadcast news. I think we did a pretty good job of telling people what was going on with their government, too. In many instances, we did an exceptional job, if I do say so myself.

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But there is a value to giving citizens the opportunity to see and hear first-hand what their senators and representatives and cabinet secretaries and lobbyists (paid, unpaid, public, private) are saying, how they are saying it and what the reactions are to what they’re saying.

It’s the classic “you had to be there’’ situation. I can -- and did for more than 40 years -- cover meetings and tell you as faithfully as possible what happened. But if you see the person I quoted as he or she is making the statement, maybe you get a different sense of what’s going on. Live coverage of meetings allows you and every other citizen to be in the room at the time.

Better yet, in some ways, is the archive of legislative action. You don’t even have to be available at the time of the meeting. You have the ability, as long as you’re connected, to go to the archives at your convenience and catch the meeting that interests you. The information is there when you are -- anytime, anyplace.

As a reporter, I relied on the archives to broaden my reach. During a session, there’s just too much happening (yes, I know, it’s boring sometimes) to catch it all. I caught what I could live, and late at night or early in the morning, I checked back in the archives for stuff I’d missed. I found the service invaluable, and I was paid to be there. How much more valuable has it been for citizens who care deeply about the process but must leave work to be there and foot their own bill, to boot?

In the infancy of live legislative coverage, there was concern it would be abused. People will play to the cameras, some warned. That has happened. Duh. Of course it has. But not to the degree I thought it might.

Former Rep. George Mortimer, of Belle Fourche, may have made grandstanders think twice when, during a House debate that featured a ton of playing to the camera, he rose to say, “I don’t have anything to add. I just wanted my mug on television like these other folks.’’

The future of the service deserves some serious conversation.

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