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Endangered Species: The Vanishing Washington Regional Reporter - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jennifer Dorroh   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:09

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 (RRA), 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 Representative 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 & 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 Company, 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. Rick 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-doughnuts 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."