Woes of Washington

Bureau shutdowns do matter

In a front-page piece yesterday, The New York Times’s Richard Pérez-Peña examines how newspapers are cutting staff in Washington, D.C.—just as a new administration, tasked with challenges of historical proportions, prepares to assume control—and what these cutbacks mean in terms of coverage (spoiler alert: it will be reduced in depth and quality).

For financially strapped newspapers, eliminating or reducing their Washington presence may seem like a good idea:

Newspaper executives say it makes no economic sense to have hundreds of reporters writing about the same set of events each day. Even the affected journalists concede that on breaking news, news agency articles are often fine for their papers.

But, as Pérez-Peña notes:

As bureaus shrink, they cut back on in-depth and investigative projects and from having reporters assigned to cover specific federal agencies.

“We used to cover the Pentagon, combing through defense contracts, and we’re covering some of that out of Dallas now, but basically we don’t do it anymore,” said Carl Leubsdorf, chief of The Dallas Morning News bureau, which had 11 people four years ago, and now has four. “We had someone at the Justice Department, but no longer. We can’t free someone up for a long time to do a major project.”

Take, for instance, the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau’s reporting on weapons of destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war. Knight-Ridder was one of the only skeptical voices to question the now-proven false intelligence coming out of the White House. Now Knight-Ridder is owned by McClatchy, and their office space is too big for their shrunken staff. It seems unlikely that the few remaining news operations in the capital will be able to fill the void left by all the departing publications.

Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget sheds no tears for the affected newspapers:

The idea that forty small city papers should have large Washington staffs covering national and international news is ridiculous: three or four would (and will) suffice. The former staffing was paid for by a business model that is rapidly disintegrating, and it was always a “nice to have” not a “must have.”

Blodget also says that “the vast majority of the work these reporters did was duplicative.” This can be true, especially when the Washington press corps settles for acting as a transcription service for all the speeches, fundraisers, and photo ops that comprise life in Washington. In this sense, Blodget’s argument is fair—it’s hard to make an argument about why the Knoxville News Sentinel should keep a Washington reporter if he just rehashes what the AP already reported: that a Knoxville artist designed an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. If the wire service already did the regional story, why do it again?

But regional papers with an office in Washington are in a unique position to explain how federal policies are making decisions that affect their readers on a local level, such a this article about how Florida farmers with deal with new federal pesticide regulations, or this account about how an earmark for mental health coverage will affect Vermont. This is valuable reporting, and the direct result of these smaller papers having some sort of presence in Washington.

Blodget acknowledges this point, yet manages quickly to brush it aside:

One area where coverage may actually suffer is that of the Washington-based activities of state senators and Congress-people: New Yorkers may not care much about how much pork, say, Wayne Allard of Colorado is stuffing into the latest bill, but folks in Aspen might (might—although if it is really tasty pork, we expect Wayne himself will rush to tell them about it).

Even this lament, however, is misplaced: If there is truly a need or hunger for news about the Washington-based activities of local representatives, it can and will be filled by Politico or some other organization that has some economies of scale. Then local newspapers can reprint or aggregate it.

Blodget’s faith in the market’s ability to dictate the ultimate value of political reporting seems rather glib, as does his “don’t worry, Politico will do it!” theory. Reporting based on intimate knowledge of arcane agencies, department personalities, nurtured relationships with sources, and all the other stuff that comes with being in one place for a long time and getting to know everyone simply cannot be replaced by Politico alone, or by faith in soon-to-materialize organizations. Sure, Politico reporters are Washington-savvy. But there aren’t enough of them to cover 100 senators, 435 representatives, a dozen departments, myriad committees and subcommittees, and additional agencies. They don’t have the resources to read each bill with an eye for how it’s going to affect a specific state, or to internalize the particular idiosyncrasies of different legislators, their relationships and allegiances in D.C. and at home, their campaign promises and so on. There’s no doubt that Politico can do a fine job, but it can’t be everywhere.

The incoming Obama administration has discussed plans to continue communicating directly with voters like they did during the campaign:

President-elect Barack Obama says that he wants to make his administration more responsive to the American people. To that end, his aides are introducing a host of YouTube and other efforts aimed at bypassing the media and communicating directly with voters.

But volume and quality are two separate things. As the White House steps up its communication game, the press will need to watch whether what the new President says matches with what he’s doing. That, too, is a hard job to do with so many reporters gone.

As Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie tells Pérez-Peña, “In times of great change and crisis, usually the press corps grows,” he said. Despite the strain of the Depression, he said, “When F.D.R. took office, newspapers sent far more people to Washington.” Obama has signaled another New Deal in the making, and, while times and circumstances have changed, the need for good, informed reporting has not. The decimation of newspapers’ D.C. bureaus makes it less likely that that need will be adequately met.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.