When he accepted a journalism award two weeks ago at the National Press Club, Bill Walsh, a former Washington correspondent for New Orleans' Times-Picayune, decried the alarming decline in the size of the Washington press corps.
"In tight times, papers see their Washington operations as luxuries," he said. "That's misguided. The result is that members of Congress, except for the leaders, are getting less scrutiny than ever."
A grim situation just got worse. Today, Newhouse, the parent company of the Times-Pic, announced it will close its Washington bureau after the election.
The plan to shutter the office is part of the deafening drumbeat of newspaper decline. It has the air of inevitability about it. And it reflects the unfortunate and wrongheaded perception that Washington reporting, like international coverage, is a frill.
"The decision to close followed the direction of our clients, the editors of our papers," Linda Fibich, Newhouse's editor and Washington bureau chief, told the Associated Press. "They felt they could not afford to pay for a central Washington bureau at a time when they were steering all available resources to local coverage back at home."
But, of course, much of the best Washington reporting is local coverage. That's what is so sad about many of the cutbacks by regional news outlets. They leave numerous local member of Congress without the scrutiny they require. They leave important local news buried in the federal bureaucracy.
For example, 11 of the 24 reporters in the Newhouse bureau follow regional news for papers in the chain. They are employees of the individual papers, and Fibich pointed out that they have the option of keeping their correspondents in the nation's capital.
But I wouldn't bet too heavily that a lot of them will.
The Newhouse bureau got a lot of attention in the 1990s when then-Bureau Chief Deborah Howell emphasized enterprise rather than running with the Washington pack. (Fibich later served as Howell's deputy before moving up. Howell is now the Washington Post's ombudsman.) In the June 1994 issue of AJR, senior contributing editor Carl Sessions Stepp wrote, "Howell's innovative selection of 'new issues beats' quickly drew attention and helped redefine the agenda for many Washington bureaus." Rather than focus on classic Beltway topics, she assigned reporters to cover such topics as religion, race relations and ethics and morality (the latter certainly should be a D.C. mainstay!).
Now the bureau is simply the latest casualty on a media landscape littered with them.