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Endangered Species: The Vanishing Washington Regional Reporter - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jennifer Dorroh   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:09

captial-cutbacks-graphicNevertheless, 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 took buyouts and were not replaced.

Both of the Washington reporters for Newark's Star-Ledger, another Newhouse property, accepted buyouts as part of major cutbacks at the paper. At this article'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 forgo comprehensive reporting on the delegation in favor of beat coverage. Scott Orr covered technology and Robert Cohen tracked the Food & 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 [Freedom on Information Act] 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. (Two positions were cut when McClatchy sold Minneapolis' Star Tribune in December 2006.)

"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 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."