AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2009

Endangered Species   

Many newspapers are laying off the reporters who monitor the federal government from a local angle. The cost could be steep.

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

Related reading:
   » Capital Cutbacks

Plucked from the bulletin board of George Condon's office in the Copley News Service Washington bureau are 21 pink index cards, each representing a completed chapter of "The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught." The bureau's reporters broke the story of the California Republican's bribe-taking, and in the process won a Pulitzer for Copley and its flagship paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Gone now are those reporters, along with the rest of their colleagues who monitored San Diego's interests as they played out in the halls of federal power. Empty are most of their former offices, except where Copley has managed to sublet part of its National Press Building space, for which the company has a lease until 2011.

"These days, all the major bureaus have space they're renting out. We've all become landlords looking for subtenants," says Condon, who was bureau chief when he accepted a buyout from the company, which closed the bureau after the presidential election.

"The real tragedy is that as more newspapers cut back, you're not going to have anybody watching the congressional delegation," he says. "In our case, we're sure that there's a certain former congressman who's sitting in prison in Arizona who has got to be saying to himself, 'Why didn't Copley do this two years ago?' Because he'd still be in Congress and he'd still be drawing millions in bribes." (See Drop Cap, April/May 2006.)

"Nobody else would've gotten Duke Cunningham. USA Today, AP, New York Times, none of them would devote resources to a backbench, local San Diego congressman in that kind of detail," he says. "It has to be the local paper."

As newspapers grapple with the ever-growing pressure to cut costs, more and more of them come to view Washington bureaus as luxuries they simply cannot afford. During the last three years, newspapers including those in San Diego, Orlando, Los Angeles, Toledo, San Francisco, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Denver, Newark and St. Louis have eliminated more than 40 Washington regional reporter positions through layoffs, buyouts or attrition. These were journalists who followed not the splashy national stories but their readers' parochial interests in Washington. In November alone, Copley and Newhouse News Service shuttered their Washington bureaus, and Small Newspapers eliminated the position of Edward Felker, its lone Washington reporter, who covered six senators and seven House members from Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.

The reporters, often highly experienced at covering Washington, are usually not out of work for long, but few will be writing for a general audience any longer. Many quickly find work at newsletters and other niche publications.

"That's a process tailor-made for an oligarchy and not a democracy," says Bill Kovach, former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times and former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If we talk about a government as Abraham Lincoln did 'of the people, by the people, for the people' then that democracy is in trouble. The people in power are the only ones informed about what is happening and how to control it."

With America entangled in two wars and experiencing a widespread financial crisis, says former Philadelphia Inquirer Executive Editor and ex-Poynter Institute President James M. Naughton, this is a particularly bad time to cut Washington coverage. "There isn't a community in the country that doesn't have a significant stake in what a new president and a new Democratic Congress is going to do. If they don't have someone following them with a perspective that is very local, they are not going to find out what they need to know before it's too late."

Nevertheless, many local newspapers and newspaper companies are backing away from Washington coverage or dropping it altogether. Most cite the newspaper business' daunting financial problems as the reason. "The decision to close the Washington bureau was driven by economic considerations," says Drew Schlosberg, community and public relations director for the Union-Tribune.

The current Union-Tribune editors "had supported the bureau all the way through, but these are changed times," Condon says. "There are a lot of decisions that editors aren't happy about being made all over the country because of the economic realities, and obviously the housing market in Southern California, the automobile situation in Southern California made it even worse there than in other parts of the country."

Copley, which is trying to sell the Union-Tribune, gradually scaled back its roster of Washington employees from 11 in 2006 (before selling its Illinois and Ohio papers to Gatehouse Media for $380 million in 2007) to four this year, including one who was set to retire. In July, it offered buyouts to the three remaining reporters, hoping two would take them. "All three of us applied, and they accepted us all," Condon says. "The reason we all applied is: Somebody's offering you a year's salary. You don't know the identity of the new owner. You're seeing who is looking at buying, and the likelihood is that they would not view this operation kindly, so you'd be leaving with two weeks' severance. It was too big of a gamble to say 'no' to a year's salary and risk getting only two weeks' severance. If the current ownership was not selling, I doubt any of us would have applied for it."

Newhouse News Service closed its doors November 7 because the newspapers it served decided they could no longer afford to pay for it, says David Starr, senior editor for Advance Publications, parent company of the Newhouse papers. The papers pooled their money to pay for the regional reporters plus overhead, editors and three national reporters. The jobs of the bureau's four editors and a photo desk coordinator were eliminated after the election, and other editors had left not long before the layoffs were announced.

The national correspondent positions were eliminated, and the individual papers had to decide whether to keep a presence in Washington. Massachusetts' Springfield Republican and Harrisburg's Patriot-News each had one reporter. Both positions were eliminated.

Both of the Washington reporters for Newark's Star-Ledger, another Newhouse property, accepted buyouts as part of major cutbacks at the paper. At AJR's deadline, it was unclear whether they would be replaced, but it seemed unlikely. "Until we're sure who still works here, we're not really in a great position to decide any of the beats, including Washington," says Editor Jim Willse.

He says not much will be lost in terms of covering specific members of Congress, since the paper decided several years ago to forego comprehensive reporting on the delegation in favor of beat coverage. Scott Orr covered technology and Robert Cohen tracked the Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical industry. Both beats are important to New Jersey. "Frankly, the delegation doesn't produce enough news to keep two reporters busy," Willse says. "In our case, I would say that less than 20 percent of their work time was devoted to a kind of classic regional reporting. But pharmaceuticals is a big local industry, so in a sense it's regional reporting."

Willse says he wasn't eager to reduce coverage of Washington, where the Star-Ledger has had two reporters throughout his 13-year tenure at the paper. "Anytime you have a reporter who produces a lot of good stories and then leaves, you lose all of those stories. Both of them were extremely productive, and we're going confront that in a number of areas, not just Washington. We're going to have to find out how to compensate for that loss."

Some of the papers that had reporters in the Newhouse bureau plan to maintain their Washington presence. Mark Weiner of Syracuse's Post-Standard will be working from home, as will Jessica Coomes, who reports for several small papers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Portland's Oregonian reduced its Washington staff from two reporters to one. Editor Sandy Rowe says the paper's reporting firepower in the capital has fluctuated over the years, but that its commitment to regional reporting has been unflagging. "We need a regional presence in Washington in terms of keeping up with the interests in Washington," she says. "We don't try to cover Washington except for issues of interest to citizens of the Pacific Northwest."

New Orleans' Times-Picayune hired Newhouse national reporter Jonathan Tilove around the time of the announcement that the bureau would close. Three of the remaining reporters, who work for the Times-Picayune and for Newhouse-owned papers in Mobile and Birmingham, will continue to report from Washington, but will work out of the Cox Washington bureau.

Of that move, says Times-Picayune correspondent Bruce Alpert, "It's going to be strange to walk into a bureau where the folks who are there are not really your colleagues. Reporters are social animals. We gossip about the day's news, discuss FOIA requests we're making or stories we're working on. I don't think we're going to have that kind of interaction going forward. But, look, I have a job, so I can't be bellyaching."

Even bureaus that haven't laid off or accepted buyouts from their reporters are losing slots through attrition. That's what happened at the McClatchy Washington bureau, where two regional reporters took other jobs and weren't replaced. Still, McClatchy maintains 12 regional reporters and a strong commitment to regional coverage, says Bureau Chief John Walcott.

When McClatchy acquired Knight Ridder in 2006, it beefed up regional reporting. Under Knight Ridder, only papers that paid for their own reporters had localized coverage. McClatchy ensured that each paper it served would have tailored news and boosted the number of regional reporters to 16 for the combined bureaus.

"Regional reporting is the bedrock of what we do here," Walcott says. "It's rooted in the principle that every newspaper should be able to follow the actions of its representatives and the federal agencies that have an effect on the areas where we publish newspapers. If we don't hold them accountable, who will?"

"Our reporting on Bush and the Iraq War [see Drop Cap, August/September 2004] was really rooted in that principle," he says. "We were less motivated by the power struggles here in Washington than by our obligation to the wives, children, husbands, mothers and fathers of Fort Hood and Camp Lejeune, whose loved ones would be sent to war. That was the reason we pressed as hard as we did."

Small bureaus have been beset by cutbacks as well. In February, Suzanne Struglinski, Washington bureau chief for Salt Lake City's Deseret News and at the time president of the Regional Reporters Association, talked to Politico's Michael Calderone about how it was becoming difficult to get and keep members. It wasn't the $20 fee, she told Politico. "The pool of people covering Washington from a regional or local angle is definitely shrinking." She would soon become another casualty. In June, aware that times were tight, Struglinski, the paper's only Washington reporter, talked with her editors about how she could cut back to save money to keep the bureau open. "I told them I didn't need my office. I could work out of my house or out of the Capitol," she says. "I worked out of the Capitol a lot anyway. I told them I could go on my husband's health insurance." A month later, she was laid off with five weeks of severance pay and told that the paper would now cover her beat from Utah.

"You can cover Congress from Salt Lake City about as well as I can cover the Salt Lake City Council from D.C.," she says. "There's a big move to make the paper more local and more Mormon, to focus on news that affects members of the Church," which owns the newspaper. "I still don't understand how this isn't local news." Soon after her layoff, the Senate held hearings on the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Church. The paper flew in a former Washington correspondent, Lee Davidson, to cover the story.

For Struglinski, and for many regional reporters, losing her job meant a move out of daily journalism. "As soon as I got laid off, I knew that I wasn't going to be a regional reporter anymore. It wasn't just a blow that I wasn't working for the D-News, but that I wasn't going to be a regional reporter at all. Not for lack of clips or experience or expertise, but because the jobs weren't there." In September, she took a position as senior editor of the American Health Care Association's Provider magazine.

She likes her new job, which pays better than her old one, but in the fall was still thinking about what she'd be covering if she were still at the paper: How Senate Banking Committee member Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, and Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Jim Matheson were handling the bailout. "There are a lot of ILC [Industrial Loan Company] banks in Utah. How is this affecting their credit? We have a lot of pharmaceuticals, vitamin manufacturers, how are they being affected?" Struglinski wondered.

Thomas Burr, one of two Washington reporters for the MediaNews-owned Salt Lake Tribune and, until recently, Struglinski's competitor, is the current president of the 74-member RRA, which most regional reporters join. Six of the organization's 13 board members have been laid off in the last year. "Every time I send an e-mail on a weekly basis, I get an error message because someone else has left," he says.

He's concerned about the loss of reporting each departure represents, and points out how Washington coverage is important to those correspondents' readers. A native of 2,300-population Salina, Utah, he focuses on Western issues such as oil shale, which is abundant in Utah and can be heated and processed to produce fuel. He also follows the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, which have a big impact on his home state. At D.C.'s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he spent time with a Utah soldier who had been injured in Afghanistan. "You just can't do that over the phone," he says.

Reporters who are physically in Washington are more effective at holding lawmakers accountable, Burr believes. "When you are here, you can tell after a bill passes if there are 35 cosponsors who are just trying to take credit in the end or if they were really involved," he says. "They can't control us as much when we are here. I can catch a congressman after a vote. I don't have to wait for an interview or a statement."

As part of a round of massive layoffs in March, Los Angeles' Daily News eliminated the position of Washington correspondent Lisa Friedman, just as she was named deputy editor of Climatewire, a niche publication owned by Environmental and Energy Publishing and headed by veteran Wall Street Journal reporter John Fialka. A month earlier, word had been spreading about impending layoffs at the MediaNews-owned paper. "People gave each other a heads-up to say, 'You better start looking because the newspaper is about to crumble around our ankles,'" says Friedman, a former RRA president.

Friedman, who spoke with me from the airport en route to Bangladesh for a reporting trip, finds the move to niche journalism exciting. "At a time when reporters are being laid off a reporter a minute, it's growing and doing some incredible journalism," she says.

Tammy Lytle lost her job in July after 11 years with the Orlando Sentinel's Washington bureau. The former RRA and National Press Club president had cut back to working three days a week after the birth of her twin sons in 2006 and wasn't receiving medical benefits when her job was cut.

Lytle's layoff was part of a widespread staff reduction by Tribune Co., the paper's owner. Although the Sentinel still has one full-time reporter in Washington, she thinks there is too much to cover for one person. For her Florida audience, she tracked issues such as oil drilling, transportation safety (given Orlando's dependence on tourism) and Puerto Rico.

"It's a shame to cut back on news that's so important to readers. We were never about writing the daily White House spin," she says. "I had the first story about [President] Bush's decision to break his campaign pledge and back offshore drilling. Ric Keller [a Republican congressman from Florida] blurted out that Dick Cheney had told him this at a delegation meeting. Then I got a more senior congressman to confirm the story. I called the governor's office, and they said, 'It can't be, because the governor [Jeb Bush] doesn't know anything about it.'

"That was a story that I got from sitting in a coffee-and-donuts meeting, sitting in a room with a congressman from central Florida. That's not content you'd be getting on the wires," she says.

"I've been in Washington since 1989. I've seen the pendulum swing back and forth. Economic hard times hit and the bureaus shrink and then they beef up again," she says. "But this is a fundamental restructuring of our entire business. I think it's sad if readers who elect members of Congress don't have the kind of information they need about who to vote for."

In the future, media companies "need to leverage the considerable assets that they do have," Lytle says. "I don't think you sell more by giving people less."

When he considers the impact of the shrinking roster of regional reporters, Bill Kovach says: "I'm disappointed and hate to see it happen, because there has never been a time when what occurs in Washington has been more important.

"When the internationalization of communications and economics have made this place even more important, it's sad to see news organizations closing down their operations and treating Washington as a distant story," he says. "Local news is apparently being defined now as what happens locally rather than what has a local impact."

Kovach is concerned about the number of reporters who are moving from newspapers, which are intended for a general audience, to niche publications such as newsletters. "Newsletters are bought by people who value information: Lobbyists, business interests, other powerful interests in this country. As the newsletters get stronger and the newspapers get weaker, and as what you see on the Internet gets weaker [as a result of less newspaper content], the people get less information, while the people in power get more information."

Bill Walsh, a former Washington correspondent for New Orleans' Times-Picayune and a senior strategic adviser at AARP, fears that less information for the public will result in civic disengagement. "People are cynical about Washington, and it's easy to say, 'Oh, those stupid politicians,'" he says. "That kind of cynicism only deepens when you don't understand what really happens in Washington. Cynicism means people are going to separate themselves, to extricate themselves from the process. That hurts democracy. And if there are fewer people to report what is really going on, it adds to the cynicism."

The loss of multiple voices on national stories worries Copley's Condon, who cites the media's flawed coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq. "You didn't have the choice of as many stories. You could use New York Times, AP and a few other services, whereas fifteen years ago, people would have been writing their own stories on that." As a result, he says, "You don't get fresh looks. One of the reasons why Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, got so much praise is that they went their own way, they did their own reporting, they didn't talk to the same sources, and you're having less and less of that. The New York Times was not right on a lot of their stories before the war, but most newspapers didn't have much choice in what they ran. You can argue the democracy was not served very well there."

But it's the loss of delegation coverage that he finds most disturbing. "Your absolute most important task is covering local issues. Anything that I would write about the White House or campaigns, they can get somewhere else. They can't get coverage of the local delegation," he says.

But Gary Jacobson, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies Congress, disputes the importance of delegation coverage. "They'll be missing details of who is on what committee. What are they doing? What is their status in Washington? Those are things they can't get locally. But in this day and age that kind of detail isn't that important. What really matters is whether they have a 'D' or an 'R' after their names," says Jacobson, author of "The Politics of Congressional Elections" and a daily reader of the Union-Tribune. "The partisan process dictates how the individual members vote most of the time. The individual members are important only as votes for their party. It's far more important to know what their leadership is up to."

The lack of delegation coverage won't affect the average voter "because most of the information they use to make their decision is information from coverage of the campaigns and from campaigns themselves. Their rivals make the news, and their arguments make the news. People are reasonably sophisticated," he says.

Former McClatchy Washington Editor David Westphal points out that the D.C. press corps used to be much smaller than it is now. "Democracy survived that period. So you have to be humble about what the repercussions of these cuts are," he says. "Democracy will survive this."

Says Kovach: "That's looking for a rainbow where one doesn't exist. If you have fewer people digging for what's really going on in government, you are going to have fewer revelations that people ought to know about."

As fewer newspapers cover Washington from a local angle, who or what if anything will replace their coverage?

Although papers often rely on wire copy to fill the void, Walsh says, "The wires take a much broader view of the personalities and the issues. The readers back home lose that granular understanding that regional reporters produce, and they won't have the context to understand what their local elected representatives are doing, or the impact of changes in federal regulations to their local community."

The Associated Press is redeploying its dozen regional reporters in Washington to fill in coverage gaps and ensure that it provides regional coverage for all 50 states. "We want to reinforce regional reporting, because we think it's important, and because some others are being forced to reduce it," says Michael Oreskes, AP managing editor for U.S. news.

Many editors say they will not drop Washington coverage altogether but plan to cover the beat remotely instead. "Presumably, they will still interview [senators and representatives] when they're in town," Jacobson says. "Most are in town very regularly. They won't be able to observe them in Washington, but you don't have to be in D.C. to find out what they're doing."

Readers "might miss the nuance and depth of activity on committees and subcommittees, but they can go on [the Library of Congress Web site] Thomas and find out what they're up to," he says.

The now-defunct States News Service once filled the gap for many papers, which could pay a fee to buy all or part of a reporter's time. Working directly with the clients, States reporters covered Washington developments for newspapers around the country. "It used to be if we closed this bureau, San Diego would have that option of having somebody from States watch them, but that's not there anymore," Condon says. Public radio has a similar option in Capitol News Connection, which former ABC "World News Now" anchor Melinda Wittstock created in 2003 to cover Washington from a local angle. "We saw a real gap in the market," she says. "We asked, 'How can we come up with something that is localized and makes relevant what Congress is doing?'"

CNC employs six reporters and at times also uses freelancers to provide "custom coverage for stations coordinated through our Executive Editor Eric Niiler. He sends out story ideas to all stations every day, and they choose among these ...and have their own suggestions. Reporters work pretty closely with station news directors, who like to have a lot of input into their pieces," Wittstock says.

CNC's 50 clients pay between $10,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on the frequency and type of reporting. This covers 40 percent of its costs; grants and donations cover the rest. "If this was a for-profit, we would have sunk," she says. "Newsgathering requires money. There's a strong economic argument for not doing this. It's not an easy time, but there are a lot of people who see the value in holding individual members of Congress to account."

The many non-newspaper sources of Washington news can fill the gap, Jacobson says. "The true political junkies don't have to rely on the newspaper anymore. They can use online sources. They can watch C-SPAN. People who are deeply interested in politics have a variety of news sources much richer than a single paper."

Countless bloggers write about Congress and national politics, but they don't do regional reporting, notes Kovach. "They're rummaging around the Internet finding the work of others and commenting on it. That's rehashing the news and injecting opinion, not discovering new information, verifying it and putting it in a context that makes it valuable to citizens."

Condon agrees. "Bloggers cite the newspaper story. No blogger is going to be sitting in Washington watching members of Congress from San Diego or Canton or Springfield or Peoria. It's just not going to happen. When something finally does come out, they'll say, 'Why didn't you tell us about it?'" He notes that there are exceptions, such as when Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo broke developments on the Duke Cunningham story.

Politico, which has both a popular Web site and a newspaper distributed in the Washington, D.C. area, offers bountiful reporting on government and politics, but it's mostly on a national level. (See Drop Cap, August/September.) "There are different Web sites that are obviously doing well, but I don't see them covering the local issues," Alpert says. "I don't see anyone stepping in and doing it on a local level."

With so much government data available online, Westphal believes regional reporting sites will emerge over time. "One can today go to your desktop or laptop and get all kinds of information about what's happening and where your congressman is getting political contributions," he says. "I assume there will be growing numbers of digital sites that will pick up the slack."

"I'm sure some of it will be citizen journalists who are checking Internet-available records of voting and money. Some of it will show up in partisan back-and-forth, and opposition research will have more of an airing on the Internet," he says. "I'm also guessing that there may be nonprofit entities, different models where philanthropists decide to invest in news sites that perform this kind of function." Organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity produce investigative journalism on public issues but generally don't concentrate on locally tailored reports.

Another source of information might be issue-oriented organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, that monitor Congress. But Condon says such groups don't always write everything they know because they want something from the members. "They're not going to be writing critical things about them always. It's not the same thing as having a dispassionate, neutral observer," he says. "Reporters don't have anything we're lobbying for."

Regardless of where the reporting comes from, says Toren Beasley, former managing editor of Newhouse News Service, "this doesn't mean the end of journalism. That is not even in the cards. It doesn't mean the end of regional journalism. Reporters will still corner that congressman and bring home whatever they did. People need to be informed. The question of how to afford that is what we have to answer now. How can we afford to keep someone in Washington? Or is there a more efficient way?"

Walsh thinks that, eventually, far fewer papers will cover Washington at all. For the entire state of Louisiana, he notes, there are just four newspaper reporters in the capital: two for the Times-Picayune, one for Baton Rouge's Advocate and one for Shreveport's Times. He believes that's just not enough. "By the time I left, we were having trouble just keeping up with the meat-and-potatoes stories."

Walsh thinks the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. "No papers are doing well. Some papers are going to hold on longer than others, but at some point, the managing editor has to decide whether to cover the school board or to cover D.C. At the end of the day, you're the local paper," he says.

"It's hard to see the trend reversing."

Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu), AJR's managing editor, wrote about the multiplatform transformation of NPR in the magazine's October/November issue.