Beltway politicians and bureaucrats love to generalize about “the American people”—who they are, what they want, how they feel about federal policy. Now that The Washington Post has decided to close its last three national bureaus, in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, more of those pronouncements will likely go unchallenged.
In a memo last week, the paper’s top editors said the cuts were necessitated by “limited resources and increased competitive pressure,” forcing the paper to concentrate on core subjects shaping life in the Washington region and on the country’s politics and policies. It’s a shame—perhaps a financial necessity, given the bureaus’ not-insignificant expenses in a newspaper division that has already wracked up a $166.7 million operating loss for this year’s first nine months—but, still, a shame.
Landing a coveted job in a Post national bureau was like getting the chance to set up a journalistic boutique; talented writers and reporters were tasked with producing smart, detail-rich stories that enhanced, clarified, and often served as counter-programming to the paper’s hard-core politics and policy offerings. The boutiques have a decades-long history of showcasing exquisite work from some of the nation’s best journalists.
David Maraniss, for example, developed his first serious biography of soon-to-be president Bill Clinton while working as the paper’s Austin-based correspondent in the late 1980s. During his mid-1980s tour in California, Post education columnist extraordinaire Jay Mathews connected that state’s immigration, education, environment, and other policy innovations with the federal debates on the East Coast. And T.R. Reid, who did two stints in Denver, one in the mid-1980s and a second earlier this decade, covered the Interior Department from the ground backward to Washington.
These recollections come courtesy of former Post managing editor Steve Coll, himself no slouch when it comes to reporting out of a national bureau. In fact, a Coll story from his stint as the paper’s Manhattan-based Wall Street correspondent convinced me to pursue a job at the Post.
Stripped across the top of A-1 on Oct. 20, 1987, was Coll’s intimate account of the roiling hours of the stock market’s collapse, a you-are-there tour de force that became a model of how to cover such stories. The opening grafs:
At the end, when the market capitulated into free fall, Mark Mehl, the 35-year-old director of institutional stock trading at the large Wall Street firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., lapsed into an eerie and private silence.
Chaos raged around him-hoarse voices shouted orders, shirt-sleeved traders juggled telephones, news flashed across the big electronic screens in Drexel’s open stock trading room-but Mehl just sat there, staring at his computer screen. All day he had been trying to provide some leadership: standing and clapping at his traders like a football coach, barking encouragement into a microphone, and sometimes banging on a cookie tin to make himself heard above the din.
Now, just after 3 p.m., he sat sullenly behind his module of telephone banks, computer terminals and electronic tickers. His shoulders were slumped and his chin rested on his hand.
“The honest answer is, I’ve been a little humbled,” Mehl said when asked what had come over him. “And when I get humbled, I stay quiet. We took our bet earlier today. We made a mistake.”
Written on deadline, reported in real-time, the story was all Coll. He called his editors in Washington that bloody Monday morning, telling them he was heading to the financial district to find a story. They didn’t hear from him again until after the markets had closed, when he called to tell them he had the story. Reporters in D.C. covered the crash numbers, the impact, the what-it-all-means that day. Coll did what only a reporter on the ground, with sources, could do: He got himself inside a place to watch it all unfold, and then brought readers to the scene.
More recently, Bill Booth was a must-read correspondent in Los Angeles, dancing his own steps amid the crush of entertainment industry reporters. His piece about the day Paris Hilton was released from jail crystallized why we cared so much about this odd young woman, his writing powered by the authority and context that comes from living in the world he’s writing about.
“You can say ‘Internet, Internet, Internet,’” but the truth is, a lot of trends and ideas come from L.A. and you can’t get ahead of that if you’re just reacting to what people are saying on Twitter,” said Leslie Yazel, Booth’s former editor when she worked at the Post running arts and entertainment coverage for Style.
Of course, no one inside the paper is expressing glee at the bureaus’ demise; the Post must have protected them from financial pressures as long as they felt they could. In their memo last week announcing the closures, the paper’s top three editors vowed their “commitment to national news of interest to our readers is undiminished, and we will maintain the level and caliber of coverage our readers expect.”
Despite management’s vow that they will fly reporters to the scene to cover big stories, Michael Powell, a former Post New York bureau chief, worries that the paper will exert tight control over travel money. “When I left, they didn’t want to do flights to Buffalo [because of the expense],” he said.
Powell, who joined The New York Times in 2007, said he was pained by the Post’s bureau closures, adding that although he doesn’t know the extent of the financial pressures on management, “there’s just a disorienting lack of confidence that the Post exudes.”
He scoffs at the new “for and about Washington” focus: “The paper was intelligently evolving alongside its readership. Now they pretend that readers just want Washington news?” Powell thought management was adopting a “thoroughly antiquated view of Washington” which assumes everyone there is connected to the federal government. “The city is infinitely more complex and sophisticated now,” he said.
These aren’t the first cuts at the Post, and they won’t be the last. But they are more significant than just the drip, drip, drip of bad news. According to Allan Lengel, a former Post reporter who took a 2008 buyout but works one day a week as the newsroom’s union representative, they mark the first time Post print newsroom employees are being terminated involuntarily simply to cut costs. The roughly 200 others cut from the newsroom over the past several years accepted generous early retirement packages.
Indeed, the Post is the only major newspaper I know of that has avoided outright layoffs. But that era looks like it’s coming to an end, too. According to last week’s memo, the bureau reporters will be offered jobs in Washington, but three bureau news aides will be let go.
Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti cautioned against saying the news aides would be laid off. “Nothing is completed yet, and there may still be roles for them in D.C.,” she said.
I hope she’s right.