Staying Close to Home
For many newspapers, the Washington bureau is no longer a status symbol or a vehicle for chasing national news. Today's regional reporters concentrate on writing stories with local impact and working with the staff back home.
By David Lightman
David Lightman has been the Hartford Courant’s Washington bureau chief for 11 years .
What happened April 19 in Oklahoma City was a classic big national story, with a spectacular disaster at its core and sidebars at every ugly turn. CNN, the networks and the major newspapers all had armies of reporters looking for heroism, tragedy, suspense, intrigue, the works. But on the same day in Washington, James V. Grimaldi of the Orange County Register was finishing another story, one he had dogged for days. He learned his area's El Toro Marine Corps Air Station could be transferred to the bankrupt county, which could net $1 billion by selling the 4,700 acres.
Throughout Washington's regional newspaper bureaus that Wednesday, reporters ignored Washington angles on Oklahoma and followed local favorites. David Beeder of the Omaha World-Herald interviewed retiring Sen. J. James Exon, a Nebraska Democrat. Jack Tojry of the Toledo Blade wrote about a major Supreme Court opinion that day in an Ohio case involving disEribution of anonymous political literature. At the Federal Election Commission, John MacDonald of the Hartford Courant spent two-and-a-half hours poring over campaign finance documents showing which members of Congress gave money to Connecticut Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson and his opponent in the 1994 election. MacDonald would later use the data in a story about how the same contributors were pledging to be impartial judges in Gejdenson's close, disputed 1994 reelection.
It's not that regional reporters in Washington wanted to ignore Oklahoma. But covering Oklahoma City was not their job. Instead, their mission is to cover local news in Washington, a mission that has become a quiet but busy Washington phenomenon.
Times have changed dramatically in the regional Washington newspaper reporting business. Good local coverage is no longer "writing off handouts and covering hearings," as Lee Bandy of the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, puts it. Instead, regional reporters are expected to explain the impact of Washington policies on local readers. And the number of reporters and the amount of reporting they're doing has grown.
There is no good count, or even a good definition, of what a regional bureau is – most are one- to four-person offices, while major chains like Knight-Ridder, Newhouse and Gannett have sizeable regional staffs. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to document the explosion of highly specialized bureaus that serve narrow geographic interests. There is now a Regional Reporters' Association with about 200 members that hosts forums with Cabinet officials and other luminaries. States News Service, now in its 22nd year, serves nearly 300 newspapers with two dozen reporters who provide regionally tailored coverage. The Freedom Forum sponsors the year-long Paul Miller fellowships, named for the former Gannett president who years ago encouraged his Washington reporters to concentrate on regional issues. In the current program, regional reporters gather for two intense days each month to discuss how best to cover the federal government.
Partly because of technology and partly because the needs of newspapers have changed, regional journalists have evolved in recent years to become not just an important part of Washington's journalism community but perhaps the wave of this city's journalistic future – the people who bring local news from the Capitol.
Coverage for the modern regional reporter is as simple as a wire service sentence: The focus must be on news that affects local readers and involves enterprise reporting. "More editors are realizing that if they are going to support a bureau in Washington, they should get something they're not getting from the wires they pay for," says George Anthan, Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register and a pioneer in raising the standards for regional coverage a quarter century ago. David Fink, the Hartford Courant's politics editor, says, "That philosophy means we don't just write reaction stories anymore." James Kuhnhenn, Kansas City Star Washington bureau chief, concurs. "The goal is to give the paper page one stuff."
In the 1990s, the mission of regional newspaper bureaus and reporters has been redefined for three key reasons. First, the needs and perceptions of editors back home have changed. A Washington bureau used to be not only a news gatherer, but a status symbol. It meant a lot to the bosses back home to have their papers represented at a presidential news conference or a Gridiron Club dinner. The glamour, however, has faded in recent years.
Today the emphasis is on stories relevant to the folks back home. "Editors now realize that if they don't watch the local delegation in Washington, no one will," says Ellen Shearer, editor of Medill News Service, which serves 16 newspapers from its Washington bureau with locally oriented news. Alan Schlein, head of his own regional news bureau, agrees. "There's been a major shift in the focus of regional reporters. The best ones were always doing [local] enterprise; the rest of us have finally caught up."
Second, Washington issues have become more complex. Alan S. Emory of the Watertown Daily Times in New York has covered regional news in the city since 1951. At that time no one paid much attention to Native American casinos, interstate highway systems, Medicare or other subjects that today are staples of regional coverage. "You have to be an expert in a lot of fields to survive today," says Emory.
Third, coverage has changed because, like so much else in the newspaper, it had to. Regional media used to see themselves in the second wave of news coverage; now they are somewhere in the news cycle's fifth ripple, and are probably due to inch even further away from the big splash.
It was not too long ago that papers such as the Kansas City Star and the Akron Beacon Journal were assumed to carry the first news one would see after an early evening or late night television newscast. Presumably, television and radio would offer the top of the day's events – the vote tally, for example, or the broad overview of the federal budget. Local papers would then fill in the local blanks – why the senator voted as he or she did or details of the hearing a local politician chaired.
Local bureaus still do that, but it's a shrinking part of the job. Nowadays, C-SPAN comes into the public consciousness first. Viewers from Alaska to Connecticut can see committee hearings, the House Speaker's news conference or almost any other event that draws the Washington pack. If a local senator wags his finger at a famous witness at a hearing, the story's as old as yesterday's weather by the next morning's paper. If the viewer misses the blowup on C-SPAN, there's CNN, which offers the top of the news every half hour with its "Headline News." If CNN's not available, there's the network newscasts. Finally, there's chance number four: Thanks to satellite links and improved radio and television technology, members of Congress can quickly set up a "teleconference" from Capitol Hill that can be aired on local newscasts or passed on to local affiliate feeds.
By the time the local paper comes out, five cycles later – after C-SPAN, CNN, network news and local news – the story is as worn as a veteran reporter's sport coat. The paper thus has to go one of two ways: Find stories no one else has, or give new angles to breaking news. Those two rules are hardly unique in journalism, but the regionals have developed new strategies for implementing them. For instance:
• Remembering their roots . For whatever reason, papers too often erect invisible walls between local and Washington reporters. Reporters back home are either intimidated by Washington, and thus reluctant to deal with the paper's capital staff, or feel intruded upon when a Washington story comes up on their local beat. "Hey," they cry, "I've been watching this county story for weeks, and now it's in the hands of Health and Human Services – why should I turn it over to the Washington reporter?"
There are lots of easy ways newspapers are dealing with this dispute over territory. One is to bring Washington-based reporters back home not just for "state visits," where the reporter schmoozes with editors and quickly returns to Washington, but for working trips. Sylvia Smith of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette goes back to Indiana to write stories at least once a year; she found it's vital to maintaining her journalistic equilibrium. "A salary of $134,000 may seem logical and necessary in Washington," Smith says, "but the majority of people in Fort Wayne think it's excessive, and it's up to me to remember that." Smith often goes the nontraditional route by writing travel stories, pieces that help Fort Wayne-area tourists get around Washington. In one article, she explored how a family of four can see the city comfortably for three-and-a-half days on a budget of less than $500.
Another popular way of promoting local/ Washington cooperation is to put the local and regional reporters under one locally based editor. Columbia's State, for instance, has "circles," and the local political and Washington reporters are in what's called a "governance circle." "The thought was that everything is interwoven," says Governance Editor Carolyn Click, "and Washington reporters won't live in a vacuum."
Sources certainly don't, says the Courant's Fink. "People in Connecticut are always on the phone with people in Washington. What happens here affects what happens there," he says.
As a result, many papers see the Washington bureau as "an extension of our local staff," as Mizell Stewart III, public affairs editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, puts it. In one instance last year, William Hershey, the paper's Washington correspondent, kept hearing Ohio lawmakers rave about midnight basketball. He came back to the Akron area and talked to children and supervisors about whether the program was working.
Hershey wound up producing a seven-part series, "The Cry of Violence." One piece introduced readers to Jerome G. Williams, who Hershey found "can't dunk, doesn't dribble and lives far from the three-point line." But, Hershey said, he's a star of Akron and Canton Midnight Basketball, because he lectures kids before the games about the horrors of prison.
• Tailoring beats . This is one of the most important ways regional bureaus have been transformed. John C. Quinn, deputy chairman of the Freedom Forum, former president of Gannett News Service and now chairman of the program selection committee for the Freedom Forum's Paul Miller program for regional reporters, came to Washington in 1953 to report for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. "One person did think pieces for the a.m., one did think pieces for the p.m., and I could do anything I wanted," he says. Today, regional bureaus are far more focused. They know they cannot afford to get locked into having someone at the White House or the State Department every day. They may lose the prestige and advantages of being known – every regional reporter has stories of White House people not returning calls or being snide – but they gain time to do stories no one else is doing.
Courant Washington bureau reporter Mike Remez works on little but defense issues. When national bureaus were scrambling in late November to see what remark Newt Gingrich would make that day, Remez was putting together a story on who would head the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. "Even those who keep a close eye on defense spending in Congress could be forgiven for not knowing much about Floyd Spence or Bill Young," Remez wrote of the two crucial House chairmen. "But that is past. These days, it pays to know them, especially for those in the defense establishment of states such as Connecticut."
It's the oldest lesson in journalism: Dogged beat reporting yields great stories. That's why the Fort Worth Star-Telegram assigns a reporter full time to defense and transportation, the cornerstones of the local economy. The microscope on defense paid off in 1992, when the paper beat everyone by a full day in reporting that President Bush would reverse his policy and approve the sale of F-16 aircraft to Taiwan, a crucial boost to the area's economy.
• Creative Sourcing . Ed Felker, Washington Bureau Chief of the Small Newspaper Group, which has seven dailies in the upper Midwest, was able to construct a story about former Minnesota Rep. Tim Penny by searching through Congressional Quarterly Almanacs. He created two lists, one of Penny's accomplishments and one of his shortcomings. The lists showed how Penny, one of the best-known deficit hawks in the House, routinely failed to get enough votes to pass nearly all of his budget-slashing plans.
Emory, of the Watertown paper, recalls going through congressional agriculture reports when he noticed a discussion of whether the Agriculture Department should have access to farmers' income tax returns. Included in the report was a letter from the Attorney General's office saying this was not only a great idea, but adding that every federal agency should have access to all returns of people who benefit from federal programs. Emory broke a national story.
When Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot tribe became prominent in the early 1990s – it operates an enormously successful casino – the Courant found two areas of information largely untouched by the Washington media. One was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs routinely gave the Pequots thousands of dollars for a host of social programs – even though the casino took in nearly $1 billion last year. Another was the discovery that the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Native Americans gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Connecticut tribes not formally recognized by the federal government in order to help them get that recognition.
It took days just to get calls returned. The Courant had to file Freedom of Information requests with both agencies. When BIA data proved incomplete, the Courant had to send new letters. Once the material arrived, reporters found that even the most routine inquiries invited suspicion. It took nearly six months to get all the requested materials and nearly a year to finish stories that should have taken only weeks.
• Writing authoritatively . This may sound like a dangerous tactic, but who knows the local player better than the local reporter?
The day Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched to the Republican party, he stunned Washington. But he didn't shock Denver Post Washington correspondent Adriel Bettelheim, who recalled Campbell being asked about a possible switch six months earlier. Campbell replied, "My Republican friends often urge me to [switch], but it wouldn't make much of a difference." Bettelheim then charted Campbell's often quirky political career, showing how he had been at odds with the local Democratic Party.
Toledo's Torry, who also reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, offered the same kind of expertise when the Senate failed to pass the balanced budget amendment in March by a single vote. His focus was on how Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum was demanding retaliation against Sen. Mark Hatfield, the lone Republican to oppose the change. His story detailed Santorum's brashness, and how it could hurt him. One analyst noted the new senator could get a reputation as a "cheap-shot guy."
There are many inviting niches for regional reporters in Washington. Few newspaper bureaus know farm policy like the Des Moines Register, so early last year, Anthan and bureau reporter Kenneth Pins produced a five-part series titled "Who Shapes U.S. Farm Policy?" The first piece described five agricultural leaders involved in farm policy, the "strongest forces" in this arena, and described for readers their views and backgrounds. Other stories examined the defeat of a plan by President Clinton to raise the tax on barge fuel and explained why it was a classic case of power lobbying.
• Writing differently . One of the great advantages of being in this fifth wave is that inverted pyramids become the stuff of journalistic textbooks, not stories. Remember, most presidential addresses are 11 hours old by the next morning. When Clinton delivered his 1995 State of the Union address, Fink enlisted four reporters – one in Torrington to watch the speech with a firmly entrenched middle class family, one in Bristol to watch with a small-businesswoman, one in Washington to gauge the reaction of their congresswoman and a Hartford-based reporter to tie it all together.
Because the regional reporter has the luxury of more time, he or she can develop stories others would not pursue. Lynn Anderson, reporting for the Billings Gazette, went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and found exhibits sponsored by a Montana "copper king." What made the story click was that she found a Florence, Montana, family visiting the exhibit.
• Covering the local angles . The Courant was intrigued that President Clinton picked Connecticut attorney Zoë Baird to become attorney general, and was the first to report the pending nomination – before the New York Times, the networks, everyone. But that's the paper's job. Right after Clinton was elected, the Washington and local political staffs cast a wide net among Connecticut-connected people, and told them that if Clinton was considering anyone from the state for a big-time job, they wanted to know about it. The Courant got the Baird break from a local source.
The New Haven Register found another way to localize the story. Washington correspondent Tamara Lytle heard Baird tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that a drug-related slaying occurred "just a block" from her New Haven home "not long ago." Local reporter Josh Kovner checked and found the nearest homicide occurred 10 months earlier outside a bar four-and-a-half blocks from Baird's quiet, upper middle-class neighborhood.
Solid local reporting also paid off recently for the Michigan City, Indiana, News-Dispatch. When Sen. Richard Lugar was considering whether to run for president, it was Miles Pomper reporting from Washington, who broke the story by getting the official word from the LaPorte, Indiana, Republican committeeman Robert Hiler Jr.
By taking these approaches, regional bureaus are no longer their paper's prima donnas. They are becoming as much a piece of the newsroom as the state capital or city hall bureau, and as much a part of the daily capital news mix as anything else. Washington has thousands of documents waiting to be reviewed, day after day of congressional hearings no reporters attend, and local people doing important things for their constituents. It's stuff no one will see on C-SPAN, let alone on CNN or the networks. But in this age of niches, good regional reporting is journalistic oil waiting to be drilled. Don't worry about prestige; don't worry about looking too different, say editors and reporters. As Fink puts it, "Just ask yourself 'What do people really want to know?' " ###