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From AJR,   April 1999  issue

State of The American Newspaper
The New Washington Merry-Go-Round   

A survey of 19 key agencies reveals that newspapers are jettisoning traditional beat coverage. Is the public being served?


By James McCartney & John Herbers
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.      John Herbers was New York Times deputy Washington bureau chief and covered the White House and other capital beats.     

In 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was trying to let the world know what dire things would be in store for the national park system if hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed budget cuts were actually adopted, but he seemed to be getting nowhere with Congress--or, frankly, with the Washington press corps. So Babbitt took to the road.

He went bass fishing on Chickamauga Lake in southeastern Tennessee. He canoed along the Little Miami River in Ohio. He spoke before St. Louis' shimmering Gateway Arch. At every stop, Babbitt found local media receptive to his story, one wherein he cast Republican congressmen as villains for wanting, in effect, to shutter some of the country's hundreds of National Park Service sites. "We had 28 stories in New Jersey papers alone," recalls Stephanie Hanna, a department press assistant. The blitz worked. After this regional drumbeat, the national media began paying genuine attention to Babbitt's admonitions, and the budgetary threat to the parks passed.

Now, you can read Babbitt's tour as a savvy exercise in public relations, which it surely was. But you can also read it as a commentary on the shifting, uneasy state of Washington press coverage today.

The Department of Interior controls the use of 500 million acres of public land, including a national park system that attracts 275 million visitors a year. It oversees the U.S. Geological Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Day in and day out, Babbitt's department is involved in such lightning-rod issues as mining, logging, water rights and the protection of endangered species. And there are no newspaper reporters assigned full time to cover Interior. None.

This is a marked departure from the past, when the Denver Post and at least a handful of other Western papers thought it important to have someone more or less stationed in Washington to keep an eye on the region's biggest landholder. Now they largely endeavor to cover Interior from their hometowns. In any event, the department has learned its lesson. Today when it seeks to generate news, Interior bypasses Washington altogether. If Babbitt wants to talk about efforts to save the condor, for instance, he'll do it in California. Or he'll fly to Florida to discuss preservation of the Everglades--this despite the fact that both stories have much more than regional significance. The secretary's assistant, Michael Gauldin, says department officials have realized that if enough regional outlets pay attention to a given story, the national press just may follow. "We'd rather appear in the Washington Post through AP, coming from the outside," he says.

So far the strategy seems to be working--for Interior, anyway. Whether it works for the public is a far more dubious proposition, considering that under this system the "news" is basically whatever the department decides it is, and there are no reporters left to tell us otherwise.

The Washington press corps has always been as susceptible to fad and fancy as the politicians they cover. The practices of daily journalism inside the Beltway evolve with the times and with changing media mores, and we're clearly in such a transition now. In today's confused, hypercompetitive environment, Washington's newspaper bureaus are struggling to define their basic mission, and in the process they have fundamentally altered what their reporters are covering and how they are deployed. So it is that some federal departments, such as Interior, have witnessed a steep slide in beat coverage. At the same time, the number of Washington journalists covering business and finance has exploded. Tracking economic trends now far overshadows the once strong commitment of the capital press to social concerns such as poverty and equal opportunity under the law.

To help assess this evolution, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper recently surveyed newspaper and wire service beats at 19 federal departments and agencies, most of which have some direct influence on everyday life. How has the newspaper industry's commitment to covering these entities--as measured by full-time, or nearly full-time, beats--changed in the '90s? We found that in eight cases (the departments of Interior, State, Agriculture, Labor and Veterans' Affairs, the Supreme Court, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) that commitment is clearly down, sometimes to the point of nonexistence. In seven other cases--most having to do with business and finance, but also the technology, health and science fields--coverage has increased. And in four cases, the commitment appears to be roughly the same as it was a decade ago.

Peek behind the numbers and you find other notable, and sometimes worrisome, trends. For one, it can scarcely be reassuring how much the newspaper industry has come to rely on just four key outlets--the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press--to monitor vast portions of the federal government. (And that's just the major agencies we're talking about, much less the more arcane and virtually ignored specialty bureaucracies like the Federal Maritime Commission or the National Institute of Standards and Technology.) Conversely, many chains that reach huge segments of the reading public--Gannett, MediaNews, Cox and Scripps Howard alone sell some 20 percent of America's daily papers--constitute a proportionately tiny fraction of the capital press corps.

The irony here is that more reporters are prowling Washington than ever. But that's not because the mainstream media have laid on thousands of extra people. To some extent it's due to a proliferation of newsletters, trade magazines and specialty publications running the gamut from Army Times to Women's Wear Daily. Mostly, though, the capital boom is attributable to an appetite for business news that in the '90s has become seemingly insatiable. Reuters, for instance, employs nearly 150 reporters and editors in its Washington office alone. Bloomberg News Service, which didn't even exist a decade ago, has nearly 60--or roughly three times that of such newspaper bureaus as Cox or McClatchy. Bridge News, formerly Knight Ridder Financial, stays abreast of federal activities moving the commodities and capital markets with 30 Washington journalists.

More people means more heat, and more pressure on the newspaper bureaus to somehow keep up. That pressure is the driving force behind the two most dramatic changes in Washington journalism, both of which involve the way reporters are being used. First, there has been a distinct move away from "covering buildings," jargon for the traditional practice of tying a specific beat to a specific agency. More and more beats today are built around broad themes--national security, law, science, economics--in which the reporters have the latitude to flit from agency to agency in pursuit of stories. So one day may find a national security correspondent at the State Department, the next day at CIA headquarters, and the day after that the Pentagon.

The second major shift involves a concentrated push to get reporters in Washington to write stories with strong angles for the reader back home. "Local, local, local," says Clark Hoyt, vice president for news for Knight Ridder and former chief of its Washington bureau. "Local news is the heart of the franchise.... If you look at reader research, the thing that readers are most intensively interested in is, first, local--my area, my neighborhood."

The fact is, Washington, with its multitude of public and private research agencies, increasingly is seen as a center for information rather than a center of government--and the new Washington journalism reflects this thinking. Virtually all the increase in coverage of business and economic affairs, for example, is based on a search for statistics and other information with little regard for what is happening within the agencies that produce it. But this evolution comes with some risk. If no one is covering Washington's "buildings," who will cultivate the kind of deep sources it takes to really know what's going on inside them? If everyone is looking for stories with "local angles," how many serious national stories will go unreported? If in trying to differentiate themselves from their electronic brethren Washington's print reporters become fixated with personalities or political process or today's spin, who will monitor actual governance on behalf of the public?

To understand the extent of these changes it is useful to look back to a time, before Monica Lewinsky was born, when presidents often were treated with a respect akin to kings, when reporters fought for the chance to travel with the secretary of state, when government actions weren't widely discussed until they had been read on the front page of the day's paper or heard on the nightly news. News from Washington was often high drama. It was about life-and-death issues of moment, not cynical gamesmanship. It seemed to matter.

Citizens were best connected to Washington by their local newspapers through the news dispatches, analyses and columns of their paper's staff in the capital, with numerous regional papers competing with their larger and more influential counterparts for leaks and exclusive information. In the process, they were able to follow and judge, at least to some extent, the policies and actions of the national government. Not anymore. Except for papers in the biggest markets, most dailies have drastically reduced the amount of foreign and national news they publish. Washington has scarcely been immune. "We are no longer there waiting for the call from the red phone," says Charles Lewis, Hearst's Washington bureau chief. "The Cold War for 50 years defined Washington coverage...but when it ended, it changed the relevance of Washington."

In terms of journalistic coverage, this truth is perhaps most evident at the State Department, where standing press representation is way down from its Vietnam-era peak. In the past decade, however, a kindred erosion has occurred throughout official Washington. With relative peace abroad and unprecedented prosperity at home, the Washington bureaus of many major papers, such as those of the Detroit News, Chicago Sun-Times and Denver Post, have virtually abandoned efforts to personally report national news stories. Even papers in such labor-conscious communities as Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis no longer maintain a regular presence at the Labor Department.

All these newspapers see their current mission as much more difficult than in the past because of the pressures to do more analysis of news events and to go behind the issues involved--and to do it all instantly, since they now compete with a daunting array of electronic media. "News is very different in the CNN era than in the pre-CNN era," says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Andrew Glass, senior correspondent for Cox and its former bureau chief, elaborates: "In the old days, on the first day we would report what happened. On the second day, we would tell what the reaction was. On the third day, we would analyze what it means. Now CNN tells you what happened and five minutes later some professor from Fordham University is telling you what it means. That's the problem. We have to find a way to package it all the first day or we're out of business.

"If we tried today to do traditional coverage in the traditional way, it would be ignored," Glass continues. "The papers wouldn't run it."

Therefore an increasing number of chains and newspapers--Cox, Hearst, Newhouse, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Copley and Scripps Howard, to name just a few--don't do it the traditional way. They have revamped their Washington bureaus to cover trends and issues that might take a reporter to a full gamut of government agencies and out into the country. Under these circumstances, they are more than willing to leave much of the "basic" Washington coverage--what the White House said, or the Supreme Court decreed, yesterday--to the wires and news services of the largest papers.

One of those wire service standbys, AP's veteran State Department correspondent Barry Schweid, finds the new culture deeply distressing. "The papers are trying hard to get away from hard news," he says. Even those reporters still assigned to State are less and less visible. They come around occasionally to pick up transcripts of old briefings and follow up anything of interest they might find, Schweid says, but he believes important news is being lost in the process.

One reason why is that bureaucratic Washington, taking its cue from the White House and Congress, is decidedly more sophisticated about managing the flow of news. When officials want something publicized, everything is scripted. And when they don't, they are much more adroit at keeping unpleasantness under wraps. The State Department "has three times more flacks than they used to," says Schweid. "They don't tell you anything unless you ask about it." As an example he cites the March murder of eight tourists, including two Americans, in Uganda. State was aware of the atrocity but did not share the information with the press until a reporter heard about it elsewhere and solicited comment. For Schweid, it reinforced the notion that there is simply no substitute for being there. "You need to go to State daily," he says, "and elicit information."

Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun, respected dean of Supreme Court reporters, concurs. He regrets the severe hemorrhaging in the press gallery, which he blames in part on a court that takes on only about half the cases, and less controversial ones, than it did a decade ago. But another factor, Denniston says, "is that in the eyes of news editors the court is not a highly respected beat. They are not really keen on it." Today's court reporters try to stay on top of developments with occasional visits and by reading decisions electronically miles away, but Denniston says you can't really do an adequate job that way. "The court is a small, tight-knit community. You run into justices in the hall or on the elevator. Being there is vital to knowing the human dimensions of the court."

Now, even in those gauzy days when Washington's influential newspaper bureaus had the capital essentially to themselves, not every chain felt the obligation--or wanted the considerable expense--of fielding widespread beat coverage of the federal government. One that has shouldered the obligation through the years is Knight Ridder, which has maintained one of Washington's largest and more prestigious bureaus.

But even here the combined pressures of budget and competition increasingly are being brought to bear. The Knight Ridder bureau has just embarked on its second reorganization in seven years. The 1992 restructuring was traumatic enough, leading to a number of notable departures of seasoned journalists, a sharp redefinition of its essential mission and a change of beats and coverage areas. The company contends that the impending changes amount to little more than an adjustment of existing course, but others fear they promise to be more sweeping than ever, and an even more pronounced departure from the bureau's hard-news tradition.

The latest move was prompted when the chain last year surveyed its top editors about Washington's performance. For the most part they felt the bureau's coverage was too duplicative of major wires, that the operation was too costly, and that perhaps it should be shrunk. In response, only three or four of the 14 national reporters will remain in conventional beats. The others, barring retirement or transfers, will be reassigned to topics instead. One of these is Aaron Epstein, the bureau's longtime reporter at the Supreme Court. The plan, though still subject to change, is to staff on a regular basis only Congress, the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department--the last at the insistence of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has so strongly objected to the reorganization that it has considered sending several more of its own people to Washington. Kathleen Carroll, the bureau's news editor, says the topics of high priority to be pursued under the new order are health, government and politics, business and economics, technology and the environment. Greater effort will be made to produce pieces "off" the news, as well as with more direct relevance to the franchise's communities.

For now Knight Ridder still has 23 reporters at the bureau working for their individual papers, but that number also may be about to shrink. The company for years has traditionally subsidized the salaries of four reporters who work out of Washington on behalf of 10 of its smallest papers. Those subsidies are now being eliminated and the papers will have to pay their full salaries if they want to keep them in Washington, which is considered unlikely.

Similar changes are taking place in smaller bureaus that formerly took pride in their daily coverage of "the big picture" in Washington. The Plain Dealer, with five reporters and a writing bureau chief, has made dramatic shifts in both function and approach. "It's hard to cover anything newsworthy as news any more because of television and the Internet, which give ordinary people great access to information," says Tom Brazaitis, who was bureau chief for years before becoming senior editor. "We still have a full-time Senate and House correspondent, but we no longer consider the regular daily events at the White House. In the [past] I would be at the White House most days. That's over. I tend to do more work on projects based on issues that can be talked about from a Cleveland perspective.... We have turned more to softening, to explain what is behind events rather than relating the events."

The notion of covering Washington through a local prism is everywhere as embattled papers focus on what they perceive to be their biggest competitive edge. Another case in point: the Detroit News. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, says former Washington Bureau Chief James Gannon, editors in Detroit seemed to lose interest in covering government, politics or diplomacy. "The appetite in Detroit for that kind of news was minimal.... If it didn't have a local angle, they didn't want it."

Needless to say, Washington offers up local angles everywhere you turn. It is common practice for a bureau to staff the Supreme Court only when it is considering an appeal from a case of regional interest, or to report on new legislation only when a local member of Congress is its author. Of course, to some extent news from Washington with a local connection has always been prized copy back home. A host of small and medium-sized newspapers have long had reporters in the capital primarily to follow the home state's congressional delegation. In the '60s a story circulated in the House and Senate press galleries about a regional wire service reporter assigned to cover only Texas developments. One day a member of the House fell dead in the underground corridor leading to his office. The reporter, one of the first to happen along, saw the dead man's face and promptly went on his way. Asked why he didn't call his desk, he replied, "Well, he wasn't from Texas."

That yarn sounds less outrageous today, as what once was considered provincialism has become an established way of doing business. In recent years, a number of energetic new bureau chiefs have arrived on the scene armed with reader surveys and directives from their home offices determined to alter the way Washington is reported. Much of their criticism of past practices was well-founded: too many reporters standing around waiting for handouts, too much cozying up to high officials, too much redundancy in reporting among papers and agencies with little originality in news dispatches, too much allowing government officials to set the news agenda, too much pack journalism.

Deborah Howell, Washington chief for Newhouse, was one of the pioneers in structuring a bureau designed to avoid traditional beats and to focus on issues believed to be of greater reader interest. But she makes no claim that her 40-person bureau is covering Washington. Newhouse editors believed they received adequate hard news coverage from Washington from many other sources; they made clear to her that "they did not want another version of the story of the day. They wanted something different."

To say the least, many of her beats are not traditional. Among them are money and jobs; race and ethnicity; family and children; violence; cyberspace; the American scene; and "doing good." Howell believes the bureau's primary function should be focused on enterprise stories that nobody else has, and claims considerable success. "I want to have important trend stories," she says.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been studying Washington journalism for a quarter of a century, takes the side of the new generation of bureau chiefs in their efforts to reduce redundancy, which he sees as large numbers of reporters all writing virtually the same story while other news goes unreported.

Still, the new approaches to Washington coverage do have real drawbacks. They have helped fuel a record amount of turnover at the Washington bureaus. Despite the competence and commitment of the large news organizations that serve multiple papers, competition is reduced and some important stories invariably go ignored. The term "parachute journalism" used to suggest intrepid writers dropping into unknown terrain overseas, but with the downplaying of conventional beats we now have reporters in our own capital parachuting into the State Department or the Supreme Court. And while more coverage of health, crime, immigration, technology, economic trends and the environment is a laudable thing, in Washington it usually occurs without regard to the state of governance by the federal institutions involved.

And make no mistake: Washington is still very much in business. For all the efforts to shrink the vast bureaucracy, despite the return of so much power to the states, official Washington continues to exert a huge impact on people's lives. "The demise of big government has been greatly exaggerated," says Doyle McManus, who runs the Washington bureau of the L.A. Times. "I'm actually surprised at how obsolete we aren't."

Of course, the inherent problem in assessing the impact of the new Washington coverage is what we don't see--stories reporters never find, or ones they do but cannot get printed. Morton Mintz keeps a fat file of occurrences he considers important but were never printed, or were buried on back pages of the major newspapers he reads. Mintz had a distinguished career as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post (among other big stories, he alerted consumers to the dangers of thalidomide in the early '60s), and today he is a kind of conscience-scold who directs his ire in long memos and op-ed pieces. Last fall, writing in The Nation, he observed: "In the four months ending in mid-September, for example, news of deliberate, even criminal, corporate misconduct with dire consequences for people and the environment--news that could be plucked from the wires like plums from a tree--too often drew either scant attention or none at all. Some great newspapers shrink-wrapped these stories into brief, one-shot items, causing them to sink without a trace. No follow-up, no commentary, no editorials."

One of several examples Mintz cited occurred last summer, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press "drew on Minnesota tobacco-industry documents to expose 13 well-credentialed scientists who took more than $156,000 from the industry for writing letters--or signing letters written or edited by tobacco law firms--discrediting links between secondhand smoke and lung cancer." The Washington Post ran an AP summary, he said, while the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times carried nothing at all.

Mintz and others believe that the new order of journalism in Washington stems in part from how today's editors define news. The trend is away from hard news about how the government is functioning and evolving to softer stories and analysis about events and personalities. Some see in it a conscious, albeit futile, effort to mimic television's more entertainment-oriented approach to news, where, even in light of the cable TV boom and the 24-hour news cycle, genuine depth and context remain rare. (Indeed, the network news divisions have led the march away from fixed Washington beats.)

Certainly there's no shortage of longtime reporters who feel their hard news copy is being downgraded. When he left an editing slot at the Washington Post to return to reporting, Bill McAllister asked to cover the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Not exactly the sexiest beat in town--which was the point. "I had always thought of the VA as a great gray whale that sits almost unnoticed in Washington, second only to the Pentagon in the number of people it employs," McAllister says. He figured there must be a lot of good stories in a department that has 255,000 employees nationwide, spends $38 billion a year, administers benefits for 25 million veterans, guarantees 15 million home loans and operates one of the world's largest insurance programs.

He was right. One story from last fall offered a case in point. For years government auditors have been calling on the VA to shutter many of its 173 hospitals, branding them obsolete and containing too many empty beds. Just as regularly, Congress, under pressure from the powerful veterans organizations, blocked such reform efforts. No veterans hospital had been closed since Lyndon Johnson was president. But McAllister detected a new wind blowing through the dusty corridors where such decisions incubate. For the first time, he reported, there seemed a willingness at both the VA and in Congress to take on this once taboo subject. And they weren't just talking about closing tiny hospitals in obscure areas, but big ones like one of the four facilities in Chicago.

The story was initially slated for page one, McAllister says. Yet day after day it was held over, losing out not only to the drumbeat of the Lewinsky scandal but to a variety of local, business and international stories (the Post being one of the few American papers that still maintains a large foreign staff). Finally it ran on A15--the Federal Page, which appeals largely to government employees in what is, admittedly, a company town. Still, the great gray whale remained out of sight for most readers.

"It is hard to get good play on veterans' stories," says McAllister. "They are thought of as appealing just to the old-farts crowd." Of course, the story that never made page one was less about veterans than reforming a dysfunctional area of government whose profligacy has cost billions of dollars and affects the entire nation.

All of this raises perplexing questions about the long-term impact of the new order in Washington journalism. After all, democracy is not a matter of entertainment, it's a matter of engagement. The Constitution requires close citizen attention if the grand experiment is to continue to work. Paul West, bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, is one of those in Washington who worry about the ramifications if the press veers too far from hard news. "More people are writing off the news, not digging up the news, and I think there is a danger there," he says. "If your job is to provide basic information about the function of the government, then the system of government that we have is not well-served."

The changes also tend to lend Washington journalism an increasingly transitory feel, and with it a disturbing myopia. Late last year, for example, the Senate debated a long-pending and controversial bill to allow banks, insurance companies and securities firms to merge under common ownership. Rarely mentioned in news coverage of the debate was the fact that some 800 community-based organizations around the country strongly opposed the bill on grounds that it contained too much concentration of power. In years past these organizations, now treated as of little importance, were important players in gaining legislation for consumer protection and rebuilding central cities. But in keeping with today's Wall Street fascination, most of the reporters working the bank story wrote only from the perspective of the high-profile financial interests then lobbying Congress. The situation caused consumer advocate Ralph Nader to charge that "surely legislation which is reshaping the entire financial landscape and which affects the economic well-being of the entire population deserves more than repeated articles which reiterate the spins of industry lobbyists."

As Stephen Hess warns in a forthcoming book, "Media Power, Professionals and Policies": "In a moment of general prosperity, such as the United States is presently experiencing, it is easy for news organizations to ignore most of what Washington does and is expected to do, dismissing the grunt work of government as only of interest to unblooded academics. When the rate of inflation and unemployment rise again, perhaps the media's attention will snap back to the purposes of governance."

Or as James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a longtime newspaper editor, puts it, what is needed from Washington is coverage of the government, with intelligence and depth. "We only have one national capital," he says. "The main obligation [of a Washington bureau] is to cover the way the federal government and the people taking part in it are serving the public."