AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Capital Flight   

Watchdog reporting is at an alarming low at many federal agencies and departments whose actions have a huge impact on the lives of American citizens.

By Jodi Enda
Senior contributing writer Jodi Enda (jaenda@gmail.com) has written about Politico, changes in campaign coverage in the age of Twitter and Bloomberg News in recent issues of AJR.      

Related reading:
   » Abandoned Agencies

This article was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

After an explosion killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia in early April, the Washington Post and the New York Times quickly produced lengthy exposés detailing a plethora of safety breaches that preceded the nation's worst coal mining disaster in a quarter century. The Times reported that mining companies thwarted tough federal regulations enacted after a spate of deaths four years earlier simply by appealing citations. The Post wrote that federal regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch mine for a whopping 1,342 safety violations in the past five years, 50 times in the previous month alone.

These are the kind of powerful stories that can goad public officials to make changes--sometimes life-saving changes--by shedding light on dangerous conditions. They also are the kind of stories that more and more often come too late, or not at all.

Just ask the families of the 29 miners.

As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs, fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle. Even if they are large, even if they are central to how Americans live their lives, most parts of the federal government--the very offices that write the rules and execute the decisions of Congress and the president--remain uncovered or undercovered by the mainstream media. Consider that not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government's largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets.

Throughout much of this nation's history, it has been newspapers that set the standard for reporting that is hard-hitting, meaningful, thought-provoking, exhaustive, consequential. In the last half century, in particular, newspapers sought to be more impartial and professional, and less partisan, as they disclosed misdeeds involving Democrats and Republicans alike. Think Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-contra, Jack Abramoff, campaign finance.

Networks and cable television news outlets certainly have reporters in Washington, but they concentrate on politics and the story of the day out of the White House, the Capitol and the most visible departments, such as Defense, State, Justice and Homeland Security. National Public Radio has beefed up its Washington coverage the past several years, and its reporters--many of them former newspaper writers--do have time for enterprise. Yet when it comes to departments, it sticks to the same handful as television.

View an interactive chart and spreadsheet detailing news organization coverage of federal agencies.

Now that so many newspapers have forsaken the capital, it should not be surprising that the quality of reporting on the federal government has slipped. The watchdogs have abandoned their posts. How that plays out in the long run--for journalism, for democracy--has yet to be determined. Perhaps one day, Web sites, or a future medium, will pick up where newspapers left off. In the short term, though, the dearth of in-depth government reporting is palpable.

Newspaper reporters who remain in the capital tend to focus on the big issues of the moment (health care, Wall Street), their congressional delegations and politics. Scoops are measured in nanoseconds and posted online the moment they are secured (and sometimes prior to that). Good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting? You can find it here and there, kind of like the typewriter.

"Dealing with agencies can be very time-consuming," says Bill Lambrecht, the lone reporter remaining in the once-exalted Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a Lee Enterprises-owned newspaper. "The kind of source work that you need to do--calling people at night, filing FOIAs [Freedom of Information Act requests]--to bird-dog the agencies that invariably try to put up obstructions to giving you what you should get takes a lot of time."

Perhaps that's why only one Washington-based newspaper reporter covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees mines in every state in the country, on anything close to a regular basis.

"The Courier-Journal [in Louisville] historically has had a great interest and desire to cover the coal mining industry and safety issues related to coal mining. That commitment hasn't diminished at all in recent years," says James Carroll, the Gannett newspaper's Washington reporter. "Being a one-man bureau, however, you have to pick your shots. Disasters obviously get a lot of media that don't normally cover this. And we do that ourselves. If there's an accident, we spend a lot of time on it. But in between, we try to keep an eye on anything significant that MSHA does. We know it will have a great impact on Kentucky."

Carroll, who has won numerous awards for regional reporting from Washington, says he keeps tabs on MSHA "when they're proposing safety initiatives and when they're not putting out safety initiatives...With MSHA, we try to revisit issues that nobody else is covering." For years, he's been tracking government activity on "float dust," coal dust that floats in the air and can lead to black lung disease and cause fires in underground mines. In the 1990s, the Courier-Journal reported that mining companies were falsifying records on coal dust, prompting the federal government to crack down.

"Over the years since then we've tried to revisit this story from time to time, absent any immediate event," Carroll says. "With the changing administrations, now it looks like there is going to be some new energy coming up with regulations on coal dust."

It is those types of stories, the "in-between" ones that track government's progress or lack of it, that so many Washington reporters either choose to or are forced to skip. Many have little interest in what they consider to be "unsexy" process stories that take a lot of time to report, require research and source-building, and don't necessarily pan out or land on the front page. But for reporters like Lambrecht and Carroll, who made their names by patiently following turn-of-the-screw stories, the issue is one of time.

"It goes without saying that when bureaus are operating with fewer people and fewer resources, they have to be more selective about what they go after," says Lambrecht, whose own bureau gradually decreased from seven full-time reporters and one part-time reporter in the late 1980s to five, then three and, since the end of 2008, just him. Since then, he has had to scale back on the type of hard-hitting stories he previously wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, to name a few. His plight is shared by countless Washington reporters, survivors of layoffs, buyouts and closures. "Part of the bureau reduction around town also meant focusing much more, and sometimes exclusively, on congressional delegations and issues that have a direct impact on a region or locality," Carroll says.

Like Lambrecht, Carroll has to sandwich reporting on regulatory agencies--in addition to MSHA, he follows specific issues at the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the FDA and the Pentagon--in between stories about politics and Kentucky's congressional delegation, which includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican who has led his party's efforts to block President Obama's agenda.

"It's a real challenge because you have day-to-day things that are breaking all the time. And you have additional responsibilities, like blogs," Carroll says. "You have to treat your enterprise stories like daily stories... Otherwise, you'll never get to them."

To be sure, the decline in coverage of federal departments, bureaus and agencies started long before newspapers began shuttering their Washington bureaus.

Nine years ago, AJR documented how newspapers and wire services had shifted from covering government "buildings"--shorthand for a blanket approach to reporting on departments and agencies--to covering issue-oriented beats. (See "Where Are the Watchdogs?" July/August 2001.) Reporters abandoned their desks in what once had been bustling pressrooms in stately federal buildings all across the capital and worked from modern news bureaus in staid rooms that often resembled insurance offices. At the time, bureau chiefs explained in what might be described as lockstep language that the change was a way to bring alive coverage of dry policy issues, to engage readers who had tuned out incremental Washington stories.

"There's been a real castor-oil quality of coverage," Kathleen Carroll, then Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief and now executive editor of the Associated Press, said in 2001. "If you look back at the way Washington stories were written in the past, you see that it's just boring as hell."

Bureau chiefs trumpeted their move to issue-related coverage, saying that by leaving the daily drudgery to the wires, they had more time and more resources to devote to investigative and enterprise reporting.

But toward what end? Did journalists use their newfound freedom from daily coverage to keep closer tabs on what really was happening behind the imposing façades of federal buildings? Did they do a better job of telling readers what was going on before and after, rather than during, press conferences? Did they forgo the dull, incremental stuff to better serve the American people, to make sure their elected and appointed officials were using taxpayers' money wisely and honestly, using sound judgment, serving the public good? Were they better watchdogs?

The evidence suggests the answer is no. Certainly, there have been some standout stories in the past decade--Knight Ridder stood virtually alone in questioning the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq; Copley News Service sent a corrupt member of Congress to prison. But it is no secret that the story of Washington newspaper bureaus in the 2000s is one of cutbacks and closures, and less coverage.

"When I joined the Dallas Morning News' D.C. bureau in early 2003, we had 11 people. We now have three. Back then, we did indeed have a full-time Pentagon writer, a Supreme Court writer and a writer who covered the Justice Department, homeland security and immigration. All three took buyouts several years ago," says Todd Gillman, Washington bureau chief for the Belo-owned newspaper. "Now, with three reporters, we no longer structure any coverage around agencies. We are more scattershot. Or flexible. However you prefer."

A near-revolutionary shift in the Washington press corps was well documented in a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report concluded that newspapers with Washington bureaus declined by more than half from the mid-1980s to 2008 (when additional reductions took place). Conversely, there was tremendous growth in special interest or niche media, including newsletters, and nearly a tenfold increase in the number of foreign reporters in the capital.

The widespread constriction of newspaper bureaus, coming as it did after the move toward issue-based reporting, has served to further limit coverage of the "real" Washington, the workaday, off-camera Washington charged with getting things done.

"To me, what's happening--and it goes back over a period of time--is that there are some parts of Washington that I would argue are overcovered, like the White House. There's a tremendous amount of pack journalism going on over there; everybody has to do a stand-up in front," says Clark Hoyt, who is completing a three-year stint as the New York Times' public editor in mid-June and was formerly Washington editor for now-defunct Knight Ridder. (The chain was acquired by McClatchy in 2006.) "The numbers of reporters in Washington have not necessarily gone down. It's just the composition of the press corps and what they cover has changed dramatically."

Parts of the capital are woefully ignored, says Hoyt, who makes clear he does not speak for the Times. A case in point, he says, is the Agriculture Department. In years past, the Des Moines Register "had a powerhouse Washington bureau" whose reporters landed the paper four Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting between 1968 and 1985 and were finalists for two others. "These were stories that grew out of intense coverage of the Agriculture Department," Hoyt says. "I don't know how many people are in the pressroom of the Agriculture Department on a daily basis, but I'll bet you that most of them work for special-interest publications.

"To me, that story has been replicated all over town in different places where newspapers once identified local affinities that were important to the economy, that were important to local readers because they really touched their lives in some ways. I think a lot of that coverage has dried up."

Chris Mather, communications director at the Agriculture Department, concurs. The USDA is covered by smaller local papers in communities that are beneficiaries of its largesse, especially as a result of the federal stimulus, but much less frequently by the Washington press corps, she says. The department's pressroom, or what's left of it, is dominated by wire services--Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press and Dow Jones--National Journal and Agri-Pulse, which has a Web site and weekly e-newsletter on farming and rural issues. The Register's sole remaining Washington reporter was, remarkably, not on her radar. (Philip Brasher, whose blog says he covers agriculture, energy and climate issues for the Gannett-owned Register, did not return repeated phone calls from AJR.)

At a time when critical or salacious stories are in vogue, many communications officials are content to be ignored. Mather, though, is keen for her department to receive attention. "The difficulty we have at USDA is that there are very few people out there who understand the breadth of our portfolio," Mather says. "Reporters think that we are here just to advocate for farmers and ranchers. We definitely do that, but we do a lot more than that."

For instance, she says, the department made 113,000 home loans last year through its Rural Development Agency. It also financed fire stations, schools and infrastructure in rural areas, as well as broadband support for telemedicine. Now, she says, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is focusing on ways to rebuild and revitalize rural America with greater access to broadband Internet connections, development of biofuels, programs to mitigate climate change and ways for consumers to connect with local food producers. Publicity for the programs is sparse, particularly out of Washington.

"Rural America continues to suffer," Mather says. "The poverty level is higher, the education level lower. It's suffering because people are leaving those communities. They don't have water treatment systems that work; the schools aren't what they used to be."

It could be a great story: Where are these people going? What kind of jobs can they get? Are they putting pressure on the social service system? Who's doing the work they left behind? What's the impact on the cities and suburbs that receive them? What about the schools? Does this migration affect the nation's food supply?

It's a story Mather would love to see. "When we start talking about our new approach," she says, "you see this light bulb go off in reporters' heads after about 20 minutes."

Agriculture--like mining--might be a hard sell to readers of large, urban papers whose closest connection with rural America often is a neighborhood farmers market. But it is up to reporters to connect the dots, to explain the impact of rural poverty on the food that makes its way to grocers in Manhattan or Los Angeles, for example, or of mining issues on electricity and climate change nationwide.

"We're making the largest broadband investment in rural America in history," Mather says. "It will bolster the national economy if these businesses are able to thrive and people stay in these communities. It's unfortunate people are not interested in the story."

The happiest press secretary in Washington might well be Scott Wolfson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Having endured a period of bad press in the final years of the Bush administration, the CPSC now is on the offensive, fighting unsafe products and reveling in coverage. Wolfson credits the new chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, whom he characterizes as something of a publicity machine. Tenenbaum has made herself available for countless interviews, and she traveled the country and even the world to demonstrate that the Obama administration takes consumer safety seriously, he says.

"We do not want there to be a downtime in the media's coverage of CPSC. We are trying to be transparent and proactive, to let the media know how we are trying to solve the problems of the past for two key reasons: to give parents greater confidence in the safety of products in the marketplace and to give them confidence that their children or themselves won't be hurt by products in their homes."

The press office also is putting out videos on YouTube, writing blogs and tweeting. And the press is responding, Wolfson says. But that's hardly the case for many other departments, bureaus and agencies. Indeed, a clear majority get little, if any, coverage. Even large departments often go begging for coverage out of Washington.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been the subject of more stories than usual in the past year because of the foreclosure crisis, says Jerry Brown, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Public Affairs. But normally, he says, no newspaper or wire service reporters are assigned to cover HUD full time, and the number of newspaper reporters who check in with the department from time to time has dropped as papers have eliminated real estate sections and housing beats. Still, HUD gets publicity from trade publications and housing magazines as well as blogs, Brown says. And, as with the Agriculture Department, local papers cover it when HUD grants money to community projects.

But is anyone serving as a watchdog? During the Bush administration, National Journal's Edward Pound broke a story that federal prosecutors were investigating whether then-HUD Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson had steered contracts to friends. This May, Jackson's lawyers announced that the Justice Department had decided not to file charges. Even so, Jackson was plagued by so many allegations of misconduct regarding contracts and favoritism that he resigned in 2008.

Pound, a well-known Washington investigative reporter and veteran of U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, no longer works as a journalist. He left National Journal last year to be director of communications for the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. He laments the lack of coverage of nuts-and-bolts Washington, saying it never was great, and now it's worse.

"A lot of these agencies never were covered the way they should have been covered because they weren't sexy stories. It's not some sex scandal on the Hill or some intelligence screwup," Pound says. "HUD is a very good example of how reporters aren't really covering these agencies very well. I'm loath to stick it to the reporters. I know what the pressures are on people to just churn it out, churn it out. The economics of the business are so much a factor now."

What's more, he says, "So much of what's out here in Washington is glitz reporting."

It's a sure bet that more Americans recognize the names Tareq and Michaele Salahi than could identify Shaun Donovan. The former are the Virginia socialites whose claim to fame is crashing President Obama's first state dinner in November. So notable are they that the president included a quip about them in his address to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in May. The latter is the secretary of HUD, who oversees 9,000 employees and a $43.5 billion 2010 budget, plus stimulus money.

Likewise, how many Americans can name the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission? It is Jon Leibowitz. According to the commission's Web site, the FTC "deals with issues that touch the economic life of every American." Certainly, the commission receives attention on big stories about consumer rip-offs and unfair trade practices. But much of the publicity comes from blogs and Web sites, making it unavailable to those without Internet access. Like so many other places in town, this one has seen a diminution of its traditional corps of newspaper reporters. Consequently, to get the word out, its press office has learned to be "creative," says Cecelia J. Prewett, the public affairs director.

"It definitely makes for an on-your-toes press person," Prewett says. "Evidently, it used to be much simpler. You'd know who your contact was, you'd call and--boom!--they'd be interested. Now there's much targeting to be done." Prewett, who started at the FTC in late November, says she frequently has to help reporters--even those from the largest, most-respected newspapers--sell stories to their editors. "You have to do a lot more embargoing of information so that you can help them convince their editor, because the resources are so tight. You have to help them pitch it to their editor. You're not having to convince one person, you have to convince two."

The FTC has adjusted to the shift away from newspapers with Washington bureaus and toward Web sites without bureaus by changing tactics, from the way it conducts press conferences to the way it issues press releases, says Claudia Bourne Farrell, a senior press officer who has been with the commission for 16 years.

"Five years ago, if we were having a press conference, we'd send out a release and expect eight to 10 cameras and a roomful of reporters. That no longer happens. Because we don't fill up the room, we do Webcasts of our news releases and two-way audio conferences so reporters can call up and listen and ask questions," she explains. "Five years ago, material produced by the Division of Consumer and Business Education was largely written--paper publications and/or Web-based publications. They were words. In the last several years, that division has taken to producing videos.

"It underscores what I said about having to work smarter," Farrell continues. Still, there's a downside. "I think our Division of Consumer and Business Education is very creative and gifted at developing consumer education. But about 45 percent of the country is on the other side of the digital divide."

Ralph Nader does not mince words. As far as the consumer advocate and frequent presidential candidate is concerned, the failure of the Washington press corps to cover departments, agencies and bureaus--the guts of the federal government--has cost American lives.

"The danger is danger," he says. "Health and safety agencies are letting people die that they can save... It's a very, very sad state of affairs."

Example No. 1 in his mind is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's treatment of Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the popular Toyota and Lexus vehicles. "NHTSA has had six investigations on Toyota in the last two to three years. They haven't subpoenaed one document yet from Toyota. That's a story," Nader said earlier this spring.

In November, a Los Angeles Times investigation by Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger reported that, since 2001, more than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners had complained that their vehicles accelerated suddenly, against the drivers' wishes. Many instances ended in crashes, and 19 people died. They wrote that those complaints led NHTSA to open eight investigations, and that Toyota responded to two of them by recalling 85,000 vehicles. NHTSA closed the other six investigations because it did not find a defect.

But the Times disclosed that the investigations "systematically excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints by owners that their Toyota and Lexus vehicles had suddenly accelerated, which sharply narrowed the scope of the probes." A second story by the same reporters later in November called Toyota to task for blaming the cases of sudden acceleration solely on floor mats. The L.A. Times' own investigation pointed to electronic throttles, the reporters wrote. Subsequently, the National Academy of Sciences undertook a 15-month investigation to determine whether electronic vehicle controls can cause sudden acceleration.

Similar to the mining stories by the New York Times and the Washington Post, these were strong and damning. Also similar to those stories, they came after disaster struck. In late September, Toyota issued what, at the time, was its largest U.S. recall--of 3.8 million vehicles. The recall was prompted by a fiery crash near San Diego in August, when a California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family were killed after their Lexus ES 350 suddenly took off, sped out of control, flew off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.

In April, NHTSA slapped Toyota with a $16.4 million fine--the maximum it is allowed to levy--for failing to disclose for months that faulty pedals in 2.3 million vehicles could cause them to accelerate suddenly. NHTSA has been criticized for acting too slowly as thousands of consumers complained--and dozens died--and congressional Democrats began work this spring on legislation to grant NHTSA greater authority.

Vartabedian and Bensinger were Pulitzer Prize finalists, and their reporting shed needed light on a deadly issue, light that likely helped prod the Obama administration and Congress to take another look at NHTSA as well as at Toyota. Not a bad feat from 3,000 miles away--the reporters are based not in Washington, but in California. Some argue that makes no difference, that with access to records on the Internet, reporters can cover Washington from anywhere.

Washington-based reporters from just four news organizations--the AP, the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and Automotive News--regularly check in with NHTSA, says a public affairs specialist there, who was one of just a handful of spokespersons who refused to speak for attribution for this article. Reporters from Bloomberg and USA Today call fairly often, as does the Los Angeles Times (from L.A.) and Jalopnik, a car blog, the spokesperson says. Routine NHTSA press conferences (not those about Toyota) attract just two or three print reporters.

One of those reporters is Justin Hyde, a business writer who represents half of the Detroit Free Press' Washington bureau. Hyde's beat is automotive news, a high-profile job for a Motor City daily. And Hyde says he is given a lot of time by the Gannett-owned paper to do his job well. Last year, he co-wrote an eight-part series on the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler.

The Toyota story, he says, was hard to get because the Japanese company withheld much of the pertinent information about sudden acceleration. However, Hyde says that NHTSA officials were "fairly responsive" and that data about complaints are available online.

So why didn't the Washington press corps write about the Toyota investigations earlier? Nader blames the migration away from "building" coverage.

"These agencies are not being covered on a regular basis," he says. "They're being covered thematically. So if EPA puts out something on carbon dioxide regulation, they'll cover that. But if OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] doesn't put out anything for four years, they don't cover that. It's the end of the beat reporter. There's nobody I can consistently call on NHTSA or FDA and know that they're there every day."

When reporters aren't on top of an agency or department, they often miss inaction. Advocates argue that was the real story of the first decade of this century. The Bush administration systematically rolled back regulatory enforcement, but little was written about it. As Nader puts it: "You don't want to be investigated or covered? Don't do anything."

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer organization founded by Nader in 1970, lists an overwhelming amount of information about recalls, defects and complaints on its Web site, autosafety.org. Clarence Ditlow, the group's executive director, says that during the second term of George W. Bush's presidency, NHTSA "virtually stopped issuing any fines. And there was no journalistic coverage of that."

It's only now, with the Obama administration confronting record-setting Toyota recalls, that fines are coming back into fashion, he says. But that doesn't mean journalists should be less vigilant.

"You simply need to have journalists who are willing to pull teeth," Ditlow says. "Could Toyota have been discovered earlier? I think so... If there'd been coverage of Toyota and NHTSA reaching deals to exclude certain types of complaints, I think that would have precluded what they did." For instance, Ditlow says that NHTSA excluded from its investigations complaints in which Toyota drivers said the brakes failed to stop runaway vehicles or the sudden acceleration lasted a long time. "If you look at the San Diego event where four people were killed, the brakes couldn't stop the vehicle and it was a long-duration event," he says. "The very premise on which they curtailed the investigation was false.

"A death is a death!"

And a death is a story.

In fact, Nader says about the only things he can count on reporters to cover are disasters – plane crashes, mine explosions, auto deaths. He called it a "tombstone mentality." But after the initial flood of coverage, the follow-up is noticeably minuscule.

The words "regulatory agencies" are eye-glazing for many, if not most, Washington journalists. Give 'em a juicy story about politics--the sleaze of a John Edwards, the slide of a Charlie Crist, the slurs and slams that fly between the powers on Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street--over a substantive (read: boring) policy (read: homework) story any day of the week. Without a doubt, many a Washington journalist would rather pore over transcripts of Sunday morning talk shows for a mini-scoop that anyone else on the planet could find online than wade through government records that might yield an exclusive yet hard-to-find exposé of the Pulitzer variety.

Perhaps that's why an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine recently posited that Politico's Mike Allen, author of a popular e-mail tip sheet called "Playbook" that dishes scooplets and news summaries along with birthday wishes for insiders, might be the most powerful journalist in Washington. Some bloggers and columnists have disputed the title, but not the fact that Allen is one of the capital's best known scribes. To be sure, Allen is a hard-working, knowledgeable journalist. He has reported for the Washington Post, the New York Times and Time magazine. He has covered the White House and presidential campaigns. Like many Washington writers of the 21st century, he has enhanced his fame by appearing regularly on TV. But Allen's selling point is his ability to be a human vacuum cleaner. He is on top of everything, but he's not an expert at any one thing. And while Allen is fortunate to work for one of the few news outlets that actually has increased its Washington presence the past few years, he also is symbolic of the direction this town's reporting has taken of late.

Short is in.

Blogs are in.





Coverage of the inner workings of the bureaucracy, the behind-the-scenes actions that affect everyday Americans? Not so much.

"It's changed dramatically, and all for the worse," George Condon, former Washington bureau chief for Copley News Service, says of Washington journalism. Condon was forced to close down the bureau in November 2008 (see "Endangered Species," December 2008/January 2009), two years after its reporters won a Pulitzer for the chain and Copley's flagship paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, for revealing that Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, had taken millions in bribes (see Drop Cap, April/May 2006). Condon, who now covers the White House for CongressDaily, ticked off a few of the Washington bureaus that have closed in recent years: Newhouse, Cox, Media General. There are more that have shut down, of course, including numerous one- or two-person bureaus. And many that have merged (most notably Tribune Co. bureaus, including the Los Angeles Times') and shrunk.

Each bureau had expertise based on the industries in the areas where their newspapers were located, Condon notes. For Copley, with its Southern California base, that meant immigration and border policies and the military; for Media General, which has several outlets in Florida, that meant NASA. Reporters assigned to those beats developed deep and reliable sources in agencies and departments, expertise that their newspapers no longer have.

"You're not getting the voice filled by AP," Condon says. "Just calling a press secretary or the person whose name is on a press release is not the same thing as knowing who the decision maker is before the decision is made."

Few reporters who have been laid off or bought out (Condon represents the latter) end up at other newspapers, given that they generally aren't hiring, especially in Washington bureaus. CongressDaily, part of National Journal Group, is published twice a day, on paper and online, when Congress is in session. Condon points out that none of the 11 reporters who worked for Copley's Washington bureau landed at a newspaper.

Where are all these old-fashioned newspaper reporters going? Some have left the field, putting their skills to use at think tanks, nonprofits, research organizations, foundations and public relations firms. Some have gone to brand-name Web sites, such as Politico, The Daily Beast, AOL News and Politics Daily. For the most part, those reporters cover politics or breaking news and have little opportunity to develop the sources and do the kind of digging required to uncover the stories people don't know about, but should.

After two decades at the Los Angeles Times, one of them in the Washington bureau, Josh Meyer quit early this year to become director of education and outreach for Northwestern University's Medill National Security Journalism Initiative in Washington. Meyer says he took the job for the entrepreneurial opportunities it provides, but he acknowledges that he became frustrated when real estate developer Sam Zell bought Tribune Co. and combined and slashed staff in all of its papers' Washington bureaus. His national security and terrorism beat was broadened to include the Justice Department, making it difficult to cover any of them as well as he would have liked, Meyer says.

"People don't want specialists anymore," he says. "It takes a long time to understand how things work and to get people to talk to you and crack intelligence agencies and the FBI and even the White House. If you don't have that, you're relegated to writing off the news."

Now, through Northwestern's Washington journalism program, Meyer will be conducting investigative projects on national security issues with groups of 10 graduate students assigned to him for three months at a time.

"We're also trying to figure out," he says, "who's going to pick up the slack from the carnage of the major media outlets."

Mary Jacoby, for one.

A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and several other publications, Jacoby now is a media entrepreneur. In 2009, she founded Main Justice (mainjustice.com), a Web site that covers "insider news" about the Justice Department. It is just one of the upstart specialty or niche publications attempting to fill the void left by newspaper bureaus--and providing jobs to the capital's many unemployed or underemployed journalists.

"I saw that no one was really covering Justice," Jacoby explains. "The big papers never covered it in depth," and when cutbacks came, coverage "really fell off a cliff." Jacoby says there's "hardly anyone" in the Justice Department's pressroom and "dust on the desks." Further, she says, "very few people show up for the daily press gaggle."

Jacoby, who used her own money and raised some venture capital to start the site, teamed up with Kenny Day, now her publisher, when Legal Times laid him off and closed its Washington operation. They have hired five reporters and employ others on a contract basis. Jacoby says she wants to "revolutionize" how the department and its employees are covered by delving into certain legal topics, such as white-collar crime, and writing about lawyers "as personalities."

She likens her Web site to the Politico of the Justice set.

Other specialty sites have popped up to cover topics newspapers have pulled back on, including Scotusblog.com, which focuses on the Supreme Court. That newspapers have reduced their coverage of the High Court--the pinnacle of an entire branch of government--would have been unthinkable in an earlier time. But that withdrawal has left an opening for the site, which boasts that it hired the "dean" of the Supreme Court press corps, Lyle Denniston, a 52-year veteran of the beat (and onetime AJR columnist). Denniston, who previously wrote about the court for the Baltimore Sun and other papers, says he is reveling in his newfound editorial freedom and virtually unlimited space. The downside of the new outlet, he says, is that the audience is relatively small. "Now my audience is in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands," he says. The upside is that it is sophisticated, composed mainly of professionals and academics, so "we can write at a level of technicality and scope greater than any daily newspaper could use."

Perhaps the best-known of the specialty Web sites is Kaiser Health News, which is funded primarily by the Kaiser Family Foundation and launched on June 1, 2009, the same day Congress opened its debate on health care legislation, says Laurie McGinley, executive editor for news.

"We're a niche operation. We're writing for people who are interested in health care," says McGinley, formerly the Wall Street Journal's deputy Washington bureau chief for global economics. "The great thing is, given what happened in Congress, there's a lot more general interest than there was before."

KHN, as it is known, lists 16 reporters and editors and one Web producer on the site. Its stories read much as they would if written for a mainstream newspaper--and other news outlets are encouraged to reproduce them for free. The ultimate goal, McGinley says, is to reach a wider audience, not just Washington insiders.

Although plenty of reporters covered the health care debate during the past year, many wonder to what extent they will follow up as the administration drafts the rules and regulations that will determine exactly how the new law is applied. After all, congressional reporters who covered the politics and the substance of the legislation before it passed now must move on to other hot-button issues facing Congress, such as financial regulation, immigration and the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, not to mention what could be game-changing midterm elections in November.

"That's where we can make a big contribution," McGinley says. "Now that the traditional media are moving on to other things," KHN can "fill in the blanks."

A number of other newspaper refugees have gone to Environment & Energy Publishing, known as E&E, which hired 45 reporters and editors for four daily online publications on environment and energy policy. "Most of the people we've hired over the last three years have been laid off from regional papers," says Editor in Chief Kevin Braun, who put that number at 18. (See "Endangered Species," December 2008/January 2009.)

But Braun, who co-founded E&E in 1998, is careful to say that his sites are not intended to replace traditional media. His 2,000 subscribers pay in the neighborhood of $5,000 a year, he says, adding that total readership is about 40,000. E&E's target audience is not Mr. and Ms. Public, but insiders: Congress members and staffers, lobbyists and officials at federal agencies, major law firms, multinational corporations, energy companies and utilities, financial institutions, environmental organizations, foreign governments, universities and state governments.

"Our bread-and-butter issues are not of interest to the general public," Braun says. On the occasions that it does have general-interest stories, E&E makes them available through a partnership with the New York Times.

The fact is that niche or specialty publications tend to be geared toward specialty audiences, not the broad readership that newspapers have long targeted. Even if there are more reporters than ever before in the capital, the question arises as to whether they are covering federal departments, agencies and bureaus in a way that is useful to most Americans.

Who has replaced the newspaper reporters who once filled the pressroom desks at places like the departments of Agriculture, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development?

The answer seems to be no one and everyone.

Beyond the professional journalists seeking refuge at Web sites are the now-ubiquitous citizen journalists and others, such as bloggers at nonprofits and advocacy groups, who also are working to "fill in the blanks." These are dedicated individuals, some of whom have a point of view, some of whom do not, with varying degrees of training and commitment to the values that journalists hold dear. Many journalists scorn them; others rationalize that, given the demise of traditional outlets, there's no alternative. This can be described as an "if not them, who?" approach to the world of untrained scribes.

To those inside and outside government who want their issues covered accurately and without bias, the "who" makes a big difference.

"The level of expertise has largely disappeared," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization. She says most major news outlets, in the past, had reporters who focused primarily on food safety. Now, few do. "One possible effect of this is that when the administration makes a major announcement, you don't have the quality of questions or the quality of analysis that you used to have. The media act strictly as reporters of information. They can't dissect the policy at the level they used to."

Even at places like the Pentagon, which, thanks to two wars, has not shed its corps of print reporters, press secretaries field regular queries from online reporters, bloggers and other "nontraditional media," including advocates, says Marine Col. Dave Lapan, director of press operations there.

"One of the biggest changes I have encountered in my career in public affairs is the exponential increase in newsgathering organizations and individuals and the volume of requests for information," Lapan said in an e-mail interview. "I don't think the effect on defense policy of these changes is yet known."

As a result of the mushrooming number of news outlets, there is a split between experienced beat journalists who understand the practices, policies, and unique culture and language of the Defense Department and the drop-ins, who do not. "One of our challenges," Lapan says, "is in providing information to the myriad sources who don't cover the beat and don't have the depth of knowledge and understanding."

Eliot Brenner, director of public affairs for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has watched the transformation of Washington coverage. He outlines a progression in which newspaper reporters have gone from producing in-depth stories to following a wire-service approach of filing and updating and, now, to writing in the fast, nonstop method of the digital world.

"We're seeing a transition where reporters are consumed with feeding the electronic ether," he says.

Every reporter knows what that means: less depth, less triple- or even double-checking, a greater chance for errors. Brenner says he has no problems with newspaper coverage of the NRC--the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times still cover it regularly--but that he must stay on top of non-newspaper Web sites and quickly correct any mistakes. Further, he says, because these niche sites tend to concentrate on narrow issues, they don't offer the benefits of mainstream outlets--that is, a general readership.

"Now, we're paying more attention to blogs, but you have to take them with a grain of salt," he says. "Their readership tends to be smaller and made up of true believers."

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that closely monitors the White House Office of Management and Budget, says non-journalism Web sites can be useful if they provide links to the underlying materials they are writing about. Otherwise, he says, it's hard to know which sites are reliable. As an example, he says that last year, there were "thousands upon thousands of citizen inspector generals" who wrote about how federal stimulus money was being used.

"As the news media has cut back, I think we've seen this growth in citizen journalism," Bass says. "The strength is that a lot of these accountability issues are covered. The weakness is that you don't have editors--not only for the writing quality, but also for accuracy."

A common refrain among regulatory agency staffers and advocates alike is that things haven't been the same since Cindy Skrzycki left the Washington Post. In 1993, Skrzycki began writing a weekly column called "The Regulators," and she later wrote a book called "The Regulators: The Anonymous Power Brokers Who Shape Your Life." The title explains exactly how she views coverage of departments, bureaus and agencies: not as the regurgitation of mind-numbing bureaucratic gobbledygook, but as the discovery, interpretation and exploration of the truly important stuff of Washington, the otherwise hidden decisions that touch real people in beyond-the-Beltway America.

Skrzycki is addicted to regulation in the same way a baseball writer might be addicted to the game. She practically breathes it. "I just thought it was the most fascinating part of government and the most unsupervised part of government. These people are not elected. They really affect our lives," she says. She might have been the only reporter at the Post who regularly covered numerous agencies and bureaus, but she was ever vigilant. When she left the Post in 2005, Skrzycki continued her column at Bloomberg News until last year.

She eagerly rattles off some of the regulatory issues she covered over the years: auto safety, distracted driving among truck drivers, federal preemption of regulatory matters, tires, immigration and employment, liquor regulations, lobbying, food safety (chicken, eggs, meat), ergonomics, the environment, communications, nuclear power, alcohol labeling, import laws regarding socks--socks!--Internet gambling, ozone, mercury, airplane drinking water, lead, Medicare, Medicaid, small and big business, and spyware.

"I don't think there's anyone in Washington now who has a 20-year overview of how these things have played out over the years and how they repeat themselves and how the problems don't get fixed," says Skrzycki, who now teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh and is a business correspondent for GlobalPost, a Web site that launched last year to fill another emerging gap--international reporting. (See Drop Cap, April/May 2008.) "Covering regulation is a long, tedious process. It doesn't happen by press conference. If you don't have people dedicated to doing that, it's likely not to get done... I was spread pretty thin, but I did know all the major legislation that was moving, everything that was going on at the agencies. I had great sources."

It is through the slow, methodical, old-school skill of source development that government reporters often get their best stories. That can take time, and it's harder to do when deadlines are measured in hours or minutes and not days. But it is these sources, people in little-known offices of agencies and bureaus, who are bothered by what they see, who might pick up the phone and tip off a trusted reporter. Skrzycki says she was the beneficiary of many such calls over the years, the kind of call she would have hoped someone in NHTSA would have made concerning Toyota.

"If you have fewer and fewer reporters out there who are recognizable, who people can call, tip, it's likely things are going to go on for longer than they might," Skrzycki says. "It's always good to have reporters watching, checking in."

Some of her sources (who also are her fans) echo that sentiment. "Cindy used to track regulatory issues. Unless there is a silo-based issue [one that fits neatly into a beat], there isn't someone you can go to at the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and say, 'Look what OMB is doing,' " says OMB Watch's Bass.

Apparently, no one called a reporter to say, "Look what the Minerals Management Service is doing." Prior to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April, little had been written about the MMS in recent years, save for a sex scandal from 2002 to 2006. After the rig exploded, killing 11 workers and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, journalists and Congress members alike started paying attention to the Interior Department agency, which granted permission to BP and other oil companies to drill in the gulf. Among the revelations that came out in the weeks after the explosion was that the agency, which both promotes and regulates offshore drilling, failed to get permits intended to protect endangered species.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he would reduce the conflict of interest within MMS by abolishing the agency and dividing its functions among three new entities. Skrzycki's book addresses the built-in tensions in a number of federal agencies.

"You have agencies that have these dual missions both to promote the industry and to police them," she says. "These things often come into conflict. And the recent blowup with BP and the Minerals Management agency is an example of that."

Even though President Obama announced before the spill that he was going to expand offshore drilling, it appears that no one was looking into the agency that would regulate it. "You have all these inherent conflicts," Skrzycki said. "It means that the enforcement part of the regulatory system is not pure. And, sometimes, you get results like this. This is something that the press certainly never looks into or even probably knows about until you have a big incident like this."

MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi says there are a number of reporters who contact the agency regularly, though none covers it full time. Most of the reporters cover issues such as energy (especially oil and gas) or the environment, and report on other agencies as well, he says. Still, Pardi insists the agency is frequently in the news because it provides oil and gas production numbers and information about offshore rig safety during hurricanes. He declines to speculate about whether the press should have been writing about the inherent conflict between MMS's dual functions.

"Our movements are pretty closely monitored, because we're responsible for regulating such a large industry," Pardi says. Since the Gulf of Mexico explosion, he adds, "people have been doing a lot of research about the agency. And we welcome that. We want to be transparent."

Skrzycki cut her journalistic teeth covering the steel industry for the American Metal Market, a trade publication that she credits with teaching her the importance of the people who write the regulations. Take the health care law: "There will be hundreds of rules coming out of HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That's a huge story. The implementation of that law will be in regulations. And they're going to be so important, and there's going to be so much lobbying."

It's a valid point. While most reporters cover lobbyists as they work to persuade members of Congress and their staffs, few pay attention to (or even see) the lobbyists who roam the halls of other government buildings, meeting with administrators who write rules and regulations. It's not surprising, since few reporters roam those halls themselves. For sure, it is more difficult to wander around government buildings, poking your head in offices, than it used to be. In the post-9/11 era, it's impossible to walk into many buildings without an appointment. Nevertheless, with some effort, it can be done.

Neil Kerwin, president of American University and, like Skrzycki, a regulatory aficionado, says it must be done. Casting a spotlight on the writing and enforcement of regulations "changes priorities," says Kerwin, who founded AU's Center for the Study of Rulemaking and wrote a book titled "Rulemaking: How Government Agencies Write Law and Make Policy." Public pressure on agencies, he says, "will cause them to try to fix the faults of the system. That's where I would encourage journalists to spend more time...

"I believe the most important law in America is being written by administrative agencies," Kerwin says. And, more than ever before, the administrators writing the rules are receiving information from advocacy groups and lobbyists, he says. It's not their fault, Kerwin asserts, because the government doesn't have the money to provide independent research on every issue that needs a rule. But that makes it even more important for journalists to watch over the regulatory process.

"The person who needs to be educated is the average American," Kerwin says. "You sit here and you watch the health care bill going through what it went through. As an afterthought, we won't know the impact until HHS writes the rules. How are they going to write them? Who's going to write them? How much guidance will they get from the Congress?.. Does the government have resources? I rarely see that covered...

"Cindy," he says of Skrzycki, "was a lonely voice out there."

The Post did not replace Skrzycki. But it did run her column for a while after she went to Bloomberg. And National Editor Kevin Merida insists that, despite repeated rounds of buyouts that have reduced the Post's editorial staff, the paper's devotion to federal coverage remains strong.

"I think buyouts have an effect on a newsroom. But it hasn't reduced our commitment to covering the federal government, because that's the heart of what we do," Merida says. "That's central for us. That's kind of where we live. Politics and government is the heart of our core franchise coverage."

Like so many of its counterparts, the Post shifted years ago from covering "buildings" to covering issues. That means a number of reporters follow topics that require them to touch base with more than one department or agency. It may or may not mean that they follow the agency closely. "We don't have people attached to buildings per se, for instance, the Agriculture Department or HUD," Merida says. "But through issues, we intersect with the federal government."

Lyndsey Layton writes for the Post about food safety and consumer issues, and Kimberly Kindy writes about government accountability, an assignment that has led to post-disaster investigations of both Toyota and mining. Further, Merida says, the Post is strengthening its coverage of the federal government, regulatory agencies in particular, through blogs. Cecilia Kang is writing about the Federal Communications Commission on her technology blog, and Zach Goldfarb covers the SEC on a new blog called Market Cop.

The blog posts tend to be faster and shorter than newspaper stories, and some compete with niche publications. "There are a lot of specialized audiences that want selected news given to them any time they want it wherever they are," Merida says, adding that blogs provide the Post a way to develop more mobile "apps" for agency coverage. "We'll find ways to serve those specialized audiences."

As Washington bureaus grapple with contracting staffs and increasing pressures to produce for multiple media platforms, there is one that has had the luxury--in terms of staff and money--to set its own course. And the course Bloomberg News has chosen is to beef up coverage of departments and agencies, says Washington Executive Editor Al Hunt. The bureau went so far as to create a regulatory team of 10 reporters and three editors. Some reporters still cover issue-oriented beats, but all in all, Hunt says, "we think it's better to cover buildings."

Hunt says the need to cover agencies has increased because the Obama administration is much more given to regulation than administrations past, both because the financial crisis shone a spotlight on some of government's shortcomings and because the deficit has limited Washington's options to solve problems in more expensive ways.

"We think it's very important in most agencies," he says. "The FTC, the SEC and the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation] particularly now are in a period of tremendous regulatory attention. If you don't focus on those agencies, you're going to miss a lot of that. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the FDIC was a pretty sleepy agency. No one would accuse it of being a sleepy agency today...

"I've been in Washington for 40 years, and I have never seen a time where there is so much attention paid to the regulatory issue" by the federal government.

Bloomberg is able to place one, two and occasionally three reporters on departments and agencies because of its remarkable size. Unlike so many Washington bureaus, this one has grown – substantially--in recent years. The bureau now numbers 140, about double what it was a decade ago and 30 percent larger than it was five years ago, Hunt says. It has a seasoned staff peopled with many illustrious former newspaper reporters, including Hunt, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal and a familiar television commentator. Along with its staff, the bureau's reach has grown significantly. Once a financial media outlet primarily for wealthy CEOs, investors, bankers and the like, Bloomberg now distributes a much broader daily report through its famed (and pricey) terminals, but also on its Web site; in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, which it bought late last year; through its global television operation; and to hundreds of newspapers that subscribe to the Washington Post's newswire.

Hunt is reluctant to criticize bureaus that don't cover agencies. "I think a lot of people don't do it that way because they've cut back," he says. "If instead of 10 reporters, you only have five reporters, it's tough to cover institutions."

The New York Times makes no bones about the manner in which it covers the capital. "We don't cover buildings, which would be a remarkably bureaucratic and reader-unfriendly way of organizing ourselves," Richard Stevenson, deputy Washington bureau chief, said in an e-mail interview. "We cover subject matter, and encourage our reporters to follow the story when it cuts across the boundaries of departments or agencies, or between Washington and the rest of the world."

Perhaps if the Times or another paper had written about the conflicted relationship between MMS and the oil industry it regulates before the latest disaster, no one would have paid attention and nothing would have changed. It likely would have been viewed as a dullish insider story about a flawed government bureaucracy, something to bury inside the A section. After the explosion, it was a front-page story that definitely grabbed attention.

Too late.

Talk to anyone about coverage of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and you'll undoubtedly hear about Ellen Smith. Smith is managing editor of Mine Safety & Health News, a biweekly newsletter published from Pittsford, New York. She has been covering mining since 1987 and has won 29 journalism awards. It's easy to see why. She's a walking encyclopedia of mining information, about flammability and inspection requirements, about underground conveyor belts and rescue chambers. And she has the ability to explain the intricacies to a general, non-mining audience. But she doesn't. Smith's newsletter, which costs $525 to $625 a year, is distributed to insiders.

Smith understands why Washington newspaper reporters don't cover MSHA--"It's not sexy..."--so whenever disasters occur, she finds herself translating mining-ese to non-mining reporters. She teaches them how to search MSHA's database and what the information they find there means. She did that in April in West Virginia, just as she did following three mining disasters in five months in 2006.

Eventually, Smith knows, most of the reporters will go back to their newspapers and ignore mining until the next disaster. Except, primarily, for Smith (who has two part-time reporters under contract in Washington), plus James Carroll of Louisville's Courier-Journal and Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Each of these journalists covers the mining industry differently, and each goes out of his or her way to praise the other two. Carroll, the only one in Washington, asserts that he has the advantage of being able to show his face at MSHA's office and at hearings on Capitol Hill.

"Within the limits of the time you have as a one-person bureau, it does really help when you're at a committee hearing to spend time chatting with the staff," he says. "It's helpful to have that face-to-face contact. They know who you are. It shows your level of interest in the subject matter. It's one of those intangible things that helps you do your job as a reporter.

"Newspapers would say they don't need to have people in Washington," he continues. "By the same token, you could say you don't need to have somebody in City Hall, in the police headquarters, you could just dial it in. They--editors--would argue about that. Well, I'd say the same thing for Washington... I think it's a mistake for newspapers not to see Washington as just as vital to local coverage as any other beat."

Ward, who covers not only mining but all things environmental, says his paper hasn't had a reporter in Washington for more than two decades. In the 19 years he has been with the independently owned Gazette, Ward has been to MSHA's national office exactly once, when he came to the capital because he won a journalism fellowship and wanted to attend the luncheon. He doesn't view his location as a disadvantage.

"If I were in Washington, I might have different and higher-level sources in the agency that I went to lunch with or had drinks with or something, but a sense of perspective outside the Beltway is not necessarily a bad thing," he says.

In fact, Ward does something to unearth stories that a lot of Washington reporters used to do: He reads the Federal Register. "The job of these agencies is to implement a law that Congress passed. They do that by writing regulations and by enforcement. You can find out what they're doing without being in Washington. You can read the regulations. You can file FOIA requests. You can do that from afar."

Like Carroll, Ward tries to cover MSHA and other agencies "in between" disasters. "We started doing stories in 2001 about how the Bush administration was tearing down the safety net for miners," he says. "They were halting work on new regulations. They were reversing existing regulations. They were trying to be more friendly to coal.

"We were doing stories about that in 2001-2005. Then in 2006, 12 miners died in the Sago mine [in West Virginia], and all of a sudden reporters discovered that, oh, the Bush administration was dismantling MSHA."

But the Gazette, with its circulation of less than 50,000, doesn't have the influence that large newspapers have. And the large papers don't provide the kind of sustained day in day out coverage of agencies that might bring change.

Not one large, national paper covers MSHA consistently, according to spokeswoman Amy Louviere. She says that in addition to the three regulars, she occasionally hears from reporters who work for papers in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Lexington, Kentucky. In the 15 years that Louviere has been with MSHA, the press operation has shrunk from four people to just her.

Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers, says that since the April mine explosion in West Virginia, he has tried to persuade more reporters to stick with the story. "I think it would make a difference," he says. "When the mine operators know that there's going to be media scrutiny of what they're doing and MSHA knows there's going to be scrutiny in how they are enforcing the law, I think it's obvious they would do things differently.

"I have talked to several hundred reporters from print media, from radio, from television and bloggers. I encouraged all them: 'You guys can't do what you always do when the story's not so sexy and the funerals are over.'

"But something else always comes up."

This year it's the oil spill in the gulf.

Attention spans are short. News bureaus, those that remain, are thin. The federal bureaucracy is massive, and no newspaper could possibly cover all of it. However, when Washington teemed with newspaper bureaus fully stocked with reporters, there was always a chance that one or two would pay attention to this department or that agency. It's still possible.

But it happens less and less.

"I like to think a lot of us got into this profession because we did want to make government accountable and help people understand how government works," Carroll says. "That should be one of our top priorities--to be watchdogs. But in this environment, it's more of a challenge. If you're the only guy answering the phone, doing the blog, doing the Web update and writing for tomorrow's paper? Then you want to go talk to sources? You just do the very best you can."

"Tomorrow's paper" may well prove to be anachronistic. The question for Washington is whether "yesterday's" reporting--the time-consuming, source-building, questioning, triple-checking and following up that hold officials' feet to the fire; the painstaking digging that tells readers or viewers or clickers or scrollers things that no one else is telling them--will become a relic as well.