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Endangered Species: The Vanishing Washington Regional Reporter PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jennifer Dorroh   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:09

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."

"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 past 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 Illinois-based Small Newspapers, publisher of the Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch in the Quad Cities, 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 are 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."