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Endangered Species: The Vanishing Washington Regional Reporter - Page 4 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jennifer Dorroh   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:09

When he considers the impact of the shrinking roster of regional reporters, Bill Kovach says: "I'm disappointed and hate to see it happen, because there has never been a time when what occurs in Washington has been more important.

"When the internationalization of communications and economics have made this place even more important, it's sad to see news organizations closing down their operations and treating Washington as a distant story," he says. "Local news is apparently being defined now as what happens locally rather than what has a local impact."

Kovach is concerned about the number of reporters who are moving from newspapers, which are intended for a general audience, to niche publications such as newsletters. "Newsletters are bought by people who value information: lobbyists, business interests, other powerful interests in this country. As the newsletters get stronger and the newspapers get weaker, and as what you see on the Internet gets weaker [as a result of less newspaper content], the people get less information, while the people in power get more information."

Bill Walsh, a former Washington correspondent for New Orleans' Times-Picayune and a senior strategic adviser at AARP, fears that less information for the public will result in civic disengagement. "People are cynical about Washington, and it's easy to say, ‘Oh, those stupid politicians,'" he says. "That kind of cynicism only deepens when you don't understand what really happens in Washington. Cynicism means people are going to separate themselves, to extricate themselves from the process. That hurts democracy. And if there are fewer people to report what is really going on, it adds to the cynicism."

The loss of multiple voices on national stories worries Copley's Condon, who cites the media's flawed coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq. "You didn't have the choice of as many stories. You could use New York Times, AP, and a few other services, whereas 15 years ago, people would have been writing their own stories on that." As a result, he says, "You don't get fresh looks. One of the reasons why Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, got so much praise is that they went their own way, they did their own reporting, they didn't talk to the same sources, and you're having less and less of that. The New York Times was not right on a lot of their stories before the war, but most newspapers didn't have much choice in what they ran. You can argue the democracy was not served very well there."

But it's the loss of delegation coverage that he finds most disturbing. "Your absolute most important task is covering local issues. Anything that I would write about the White House or campaigns, they can get somewhere else. They can't get coverage of the local delegation," he says.

But Gary Jacobson, political-science professor at the University of California at San Diego who studies Congress, disputes the importance of delegation coverage. "They'll be missing details of who is on what committee. What are they doing? What is their status in Washington? Those are things they can't get locally. But in this day and age that kind of detail isn't that important. What really matters is whether they have a ‘D' or an ‘R' after their names," says Jacobson, author of The Politics of Congressional Elections and a daily reader of the Union-Tribune. "The partisan process dictates how the individual members vote most of the time. The individual members are important only as votes for their party. It's far more important to know what their leadership is up to."

The lack of delegation coverage won't affect the average voter "because most of the information they use to make their decision is information from coverage of the campaigns and from campaigns themselves. Their rivals make the news, and their arguments make the news. People are reasonably sophisticated," he says.

Former McClatchy Washington Editor David Westphal points out that the D.C. press corps used to be much smaller than it is now. "Democracy survived that period. So you have to be humble about what the repercussions of these cuts are," he says. "Democracy will survive this."

Says Kovach: "That's looking for a rainbow where one doesn't exist. If you have fewer people digging for what's really going on in government, you are going to have fewer revelations that people ought to know about."