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From AJR,   June/July 2008

Sobering Remarks   

Online Exclusive The steep price of downsizing the Washington press corps

By Bill Walsh
Walsh is a former Washington reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune.     

Bill Walsh, a former Washington reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune, delivered these remarks Monday evening as he accepted the National Press Club's Robin Goldstein Award for Washington Regional Reporting:

I feel a bit odd accepting this award for being a Washington correspondent because I no longer am one. In fact, I'm no longer in journalism. After 22 years, I left in May to take a job as a healthcare strategist at a large non-profit in Washington, D.C. Given the state of the newspaper industry, I suspect that had I not left voluntarily I wouldn't have had a choice eventually. The slot I left hasn't been filled.

The number of bloggers commenting on the news out of Washington has exploded. The number of reporters actually digging up the news has dwindled. Washington bureaus are hemorrhaging reporters or closing altogether. In tight times, papers see their Washington operations as luxuries. That's misguided.

The result is that members of Congress, except for the leaders, are getting less scrutiny than ever. Even before I left, I was so busy covering the daily stories that I had little time to do what I was sent here to do: Dig into what local members of Congress were up to, find out who was influencing them and figure out if they were truly representing the folks back home.

In the long run there is a public cost. I see us, fundamentally, as explainers cutting through the complexities of Washington and telling our readers what it means to them. Lacking that, the public grows ever-more cynical and detached from an increasingly complicated government they seem to understand less and less. At a time when members of Congress have gotten remarkably sophisticated at manipulating their images, there are fewer reporters around cutting through the spin, putting it in context, explaining it.

We think of ourselves as watchdogs, integral parts of a healthy democracy, but we have become expendable. Why? If I don't report that a senator has introduced legislation to curry favor with an influential constituent, or that FEMA has decided not to give hurricane assistance to college students, or that Democrats are using racially tinged comments to demean a rising star in the Republican Party, who happens to be non-white, it's as if those things never happened. We literally don't know what we're missing. If we don't miss it, was it worth knowing?

Of course it was.

It's our job to tell people what they need to know about their government before they know they need it. People are too busy to sort out the machinations of Congress and the federal agencies. That's what we do. But the explainers are losing their jobs, or leaving them.

I loved journalism. And there are few jobs in journalism better than being a Washington correspondent. The work seemed important and vital. It was and it always will be. The public as well as our editors and publishers need to understand that. Now more than ever.

Walsh is a senior strategic adviser at AARP. In introducing him at the National Press Club's Journalism Awards presentation Monday night, club President Sylvia Smith quoted the contest judges, saying, "He has an excellent command of Congress and federal agencies that he communicates clearly to his readers. He has served as watchdog for his state."