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American Journalism Review
Tracking Congress With an Afternoon Fax  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 1992

Tracking Congress With an Afternoon Fax   

By Elizabeth Chang
Elizabeth Chang, a former editorial writer forthe Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, is a Washington-based writer and parttime editor at the Washington Post.      


Word now spreads faster through the Capitol Hill grape- vine thanks to CongressDaily, a weekday fax that tracks legislation and gossip for infomaniacal politicians and lobbyists. Launched 18 months ago, the newsletter has attracted 642 subscribers with its up-to-the-minute, inside details that can affect strategy on and off the Hill.
A staff of four correspondents, two editors and as many as 40 stringers produce 250- to 400-word items about the day's events, often unsourced, for each five-page issue. Brooks Boliek, who until recently covered congressional leaders, likened his job to a daily race that begins when the press gallery opens at 9 a.m. and runs until the newsletter's 2:45 p.m. deadline. He says he spent much of his time "running from a lot of hallways to a lot of hallways, waiting outside closed doors for people to finish cutting deals."
CongressDaily has proven more popular than expected with members of the House and Senate, who account for 40 percent of subscribers. (Other readers include lobbyists and special interest groups.)
Jeff Biggs, press secretary for House Speaker Thomas Foley, says his office subscribes not only because his boss is mentioned often but because the newsletter offers a quick update on the day's issues. In the office of Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson, CongressDaily ends up on the senator's desk after being passed around. "It gives us a chance to focus," says press secretary Stan Cannon. "On any given day there can be as many as five press conferences and numerous committee hearings and then floor action it's a real three-ring circus."
Biggs notes, however, that CongressDaily's afternoon deadline can be a drawback when Hill dealmaking stretches into the evening. Other staffers balk at the price, about $1,000 a year.
Publisher Steve Hull acknowledges the cost may discourage members of the press from signing on. But Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta, who covers Congress and has written about CongressDaily, says the newsletter is "too incremental" for his beat. "I don't need to know who said what to whom at a markup on a particular bill," he says, because Post readers are more interested in coverage with a broader perspective.
Hill staffers and lobbyists, however, devour that kind of detail, says Hull, noting that CongressDaily recently showed its first monthly profit for its owner, National Journal. Within two years, the newsletter hopes to have at least 1,200 subscribers.
Editor Lou Peck says that although CongressDaily doesn't often report events that make headlines (its biggest scoop was a report that Colorado Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth would not run for reelection), he still relishes his job. "When I was writing for newspapers I often thought I was throwing stuff up in the air with no idea of where it landed," he says. "Here our challenge is to tell [readers] something they don't know already."
Hull says the newsletter's strength is its immediacy. In Washington, he points out, "it's not just what you know, but when you know it."

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