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Endangered Species: The Vanishing Washington Regional Reporter - Page 5 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jennifer Dorroh   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009 10:09

As fewer newspapers cover Washington from a local angle, who or what -- if anything -- will replace their coverage?

Although papers often rely on wire copy to fill the void, Walsh says, "The wires take a much broader view of the personalities and the issues. The readers back home lose that granular understanding that regional reporters produce, and they won't have the context to understand what their local elected representatives are doing, or the impact of changes in federal regulations to their local community."

The Associated Press is redeploying its dozen regional reporters in Washington to fill in coverage gaps and ensure that it provides regional coverage for all 50 states. "We want to reinforce regional reporting, because we think it's important, and because some others are being forced to reduce it," says Michael Oreskes, AP managing editor for U.S. news.

Many editors say they will not drop Washington coverage altogether but plan to cover the beat remotely instead. "Presumably, they will still interview [senators and representatives] when they're in town," Jacobson says. "Most are in town very regularly. They won't be able to observe them in Washington, but you don't have to be in D.C. to find out what they're doing."

Readers "might miss the nuance and depth of activity on committees and subcommittees, but they can go on [the Library of Congress Web site] Thomas and find out what they're up to," he says.

The now-defunct States News Service once filled the gap for many papers, which could pay a fee to buy all or part of a reporter's time. Working directly with the clients, States reporters covered Washington developments for newspapers around the country. "It used to be if we closed this bureau, San Diego would have that option of having somebody from States watch them, but that's not there anymore," Condon says. Public radio has a similar option in Capitol News Connection (CNC), which former ABC World News Now anchor Melinda Wittstock created in 2003 to cover Washington from a local angle. "We saw a real gap in the market," she says. "We asked, ‘How can we come up with something that is localized and makes relevant what Congress is doing?'"

CNC employs six reporters and at times also uses freelancers to provide "custom coverage for stations -- coordinated through our Executive Editor Eric Niiler. He sends out story ideas to all stations every day, and they choose among these ... and have their own suggestions. Reporters work pretty closely with station news directors, who like to have a lot of input into their pieces," Wittstock says.

CNC's 200 client stations pay between $10,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on the frequency and type of reporting. This covers 40 percent of its costs; grants and donations cover the rest. "If this was a for-profit, we would have sunk," she says. "Newsgathering requires money. There's a strong economic argument for not doing this. It's not an easy time, but there are a lot of people who see the value in holding individual members of Congress to account."

The many non-newspaper sources of Washington news can fill the gap, Jacobson says. "The true political junkies don't have to rely on the newspaper anymore. They can use online sources. They can watch C-SPAN. People who are deeply interested in politics have a variety of news sources much richer than a single paper."

Countless bloggers write about Congress and national politics, but they don't do regional reporting, notes Kovach. "They're rummaging around the Internet finding the work of others and commenting on it. That's rehashing the news and injecting opinion, not discovering new information, verifying it, and putting it in a context that makes it valuable to citizens."

Condon agrees. "Bloggers cite the newspaper story. No blogger is going to be sitting in Washington watching members of Congress from San Diego or Canton or Springfield or Peoria. It's just not going to happen. When something finally does come out, they'll say, ‘Why didn't you tell us about it?'" He notes that there are exceptions, such as when Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo broke developments on the Duke Cunningham story.

Politico, which has both a popular Web site and a newspaper distributed on Capitol Hill, offers bountiful reporting on government and politics, but it's mostly on a national level. "There are different Web sites that are obviously doing well, but I don't see them covering the local issues," Alpert says. "I don't see anyone stepping in and doing it on a local level."

With so much government data available online, Westphal believes regional reporting sites will emerge over time. "One can today go to your desktop or laptop and get all kinds of information about what's happening and where your congressman is getting political contributions," he says. "I assume there will be growing numbers of digital sites that will pick up the slack."

"I'm sure some of it will be citizen journalists who are checking Internet-available records of voting and money. Some of it will show up in partisan back-and-forth, and opposition research will have more of an airing on the Internet," he says. "I'm also guessing that there may be nonprofit entities, different models where philanthropists decide to invest in news sites that perform this kind of function." Organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity produce investigative journalism on public issues but generally don't concentrate on locally tailored reports.

Another source of information might be issue-oriented organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, that monitor Congress. But Condon says such groups don't always write everything they know because they want something from the members. "They're not going to be writing critical things about them always. It's not the same thing as having a dispassionate, neutral observer," he says. "Reporters don't have anything we're lobbying for."

Regardless of where the reporting comes from, says Toren Beasley, former managing editor of Newhouse News Service, "this doesn't mean the end of journalism. That is not even in the cards. It doesn't mean the end of regional journalism. Reporters will still corner that congressman and bring home whatever they did. People need to be informed. The question of how to afford that is what we have to answer now. How can we afford to keep someone in Washington? Or is there a more efficient way?"

Walsh thinks that, eventually, far fewer papers will cover Washington at all. For the entire state of Louisiana, he notes, there are just four newspaper reporters in the capital: two for the Times-Picayune, one for Baton Rouge's Advocate, and one for Shreveport's Times. He believes that's just not enough. "By the time I left, we were having trouble just keeping up with the meat-and-potatoes stories."

Walsh thinks the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. "No papers are doing well. Some papers are going to hold on longer than others, but at some point, the managing editor has to decide whether to cover the school board or to cover D.C. At the end of the day, you're the local paper," he says.

"It's hard to see the trend reversing."

This was reprinted with permission from the American Journalism Review.

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , American Journalism Review's managing editor, wrote about the multi-platform transformation of National Public Radio in the magazine's October/November issue.

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