AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Abandoned Agencies   

The number of news organizations covering federal agencies has fallen since 2003.

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.      

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

In the late 1990s, AJR began to systematically track coverage of federal departments and agencies through the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. One of the goals was to determine how coverage by newspapers and wire services had changed over time.

Click to see an interactive chart and spreadsheet of news organizations covering federal agencies

To do that, AJR selected departments and agencies that deal with everyday issues such as food safety, taxes, airline policy, the economy, veterans' benefits and workplace rules. Four times--in 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2004--we checked to see whether they were covered by full-time beat reporters and, if so, by which news outlets. We defined full time as two- thirds of a reporter's time covering the department and closely related issues.

We did that again this year, thanks to a grant from the Open Society Institute, on the heels of a recession that brought on or accelerated layoffs, buyouts and bureau closings.

Gathering the information is difficult, in part because people have different understandings of what it means to cover a beat full time (or two-thirds of the time) and in part because some people don't distinguish between covering an issue and covering an agency.

We do make a distinction. Covering mortgage foreclosures and calling the Department of Housing and Urban Development for statistics occasionally--or even regularly--is not the same as covering HUD, following how it writes and enforces rules, disburses money and creates or eliminates programs. What we are talking about here is burrowing into departments and agencies, developing reliable sources, serving as a watchdog.

Not every bureau categorizes their beats this way. The New York Times, for instance, is absent from our charts, though it appears to cover some departments. Richard Stevenson, deputy Washington bureau chief, said in an e-mail interview that the Times divides its reporters by subject matter rather than by individual departments or agencies.

"I have no idea what proportion of their time reporters spend on a narrowly defined building-oriented beat," he wrote. "We have reporters whose responsibilities extend to nearly every agency listed in your original query, but we just don't think of them in the terms you're asking about.... We have people who spend a lot of time in most of the buildings you mention--Pentagon, Treasury, State, Justice, EPA, FCC, FDA, FAA are the best example--but while they cover them thoroughly, their beats just start there rather than being limited to them."

To gather accurate information and ensure we were comparing apples to apples through the years, we used two approaches: First, we contacted press secretaries in numerous departments and agencies to find out which news outlets they thought were covering them regularly. Some have a press room and an identifiable press corps; most do not. Then we called bureau chiefs to ask them which departments and agencies their reporters were covering full time. If the lists didn't jibe, we called one or both parties again and sometimes more than that.

We have made changes this year. In the past, because the previous pieces were part of the newspaper project, we did not include the broadcast media in our charts. This year, we added network and cable television and National Public Radio because they have a high level of visibility in Washington. (CBS did not provide information about its coverage.)

For the story, we interviewed journalists from specialty publications, many of which have sprung up on the Internet as newspapers closed or reduced the sizes of their Washington bureaus. However, since these specialty publications tend to target niche audiences rather than the general public, we did not include them in our charts. Here, we are interested in which outlets are putting out information to a large swath of the American public, not primarily to people who are involved in or interested in one issue.

We also did not include journalists who cover Washington from afar. Some do, either because their newspapers no longer have bureaus in the capital or because they cover industries that federal agencies regulate. A number of these reporters do a very good job, and some investigate federal agencies and break stories in a way that Washington reporters do not. But these reporters tend to do more, much more, than cover one department or agency full time.

This year, on top of the departments and agencies we last canvassed six years ago, we added the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Both these agencies came into the spotlight recently: NHTSA, which oversees vehicle safety enforcement, because of the controversy surrounding Toyota; MSHA, which regulates mining, because of an explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners.

Interactive Features

Mouse over the elements in the interactive chart and spreadsheet to display additional information about news organization coverage of select federal agencies.

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