Are DC bureaus worth saving?

Photo: Wikicommons

For many, the decline in Washington reporting by local newspapers is another symptom of the crisis plaguing traditional media. Cuts to Washington bureaus have been met with alarm about the death of watchdog journalism, raising concerns that journalists might no longer patrol the halls of Congress, rooting out corruption and keeping local representatives on task.

As of 2014, 21 states had no local newspaper staff on Capitol Hill.* The number of regional and local newspaper journalists in Washington is down by almost a third since the late 1990s, according to a recent Pew report.

While the numbers themselves might prompt concern, regional reporters may not actually be doing the job we think they’re doing—they may not, in fact, be serving as watchdogs. Rather, some may have become cogs in the spin machine.

In fact, the Pew report should make us stop and think about whether and why DC correspondents from local newspapers really matter. The results suggest correspondents suffer from an in-the-Beltway mentality, and while journalists keep a close watch on Congress, they fail to connect the activities in Washington to local impact. Instead, DC correspondents focus on government and politicians rather than citizens. 

There is much theoretical research in political communication and journalism studies that contends that watchdog journalists should root out corruption. There are many glorious tales of journalists doing just that—such as the often-cited example of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of then-Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham—often followed by the sad note that the newspaper has no Washington correspondent anymore.

The reality is that there has been little empirical data attesting to the effectiveness of journalists in Washington and their impact on local communities, and actually, little data that connects Washington reporting to actual civic engagement outcomes, like voting.

Journalists, meanwhile, defend their work. Regional reporters are a proud bunch; there aren’t many left, and most view their jobs as conferring a weighty responsibility—after all, they are often the only people in Washington covering the federal government for their local communities. They also see themselves as having a special role in doing substantive enterprise work, even though Pew finds little evidence of much enterprise at all.

In an interview with CJR, Omaha World-Herald Washington correspondent Joseph Morton explained what he sees as his mission: “We are here to tell our readers what their elected officials are doing as well as just more generally what is going on in the federal government and how it affects them.” He cited his take on the recent $305 billion highway bill and how it might affect Iowa and Nebraska.

But at least according to one quantitative measure, they aren’t doing such a good job. DC reporters for regional outlets “stay focused on Congress, but often not in a way that connects the news back to citizens,” with only 34 percent of stories framing the impact around citizens, according to the Pew study. Journalists cover Congress over half the time, with federal agencies receiving attention only 20 percent of the time.

The report itself is matter-of-fact, but a scolding is implied:

Here, the data suggest that D.C.-based reporters, as they closely track the ins and outs of Congress, tend to present the news in a way that’s more likely to stay focused inward on Washington, rather than connecting the dots to the local communities that are served by the paper.

The regional journalism findings were drawn from a content analysis of eight newspapers around the country, four with DC correspondents and four without them. While just a snapshot, they meet strong social science standards and can reasonably be seen as indicative of the broader landscape.

Todd Gillman, the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau chief and president of the Regional Reporters Association, took issue with the results. “I didn’t understand why they framed [local impact] this way,” he tells CJR.

There has been much scholarship bemoaning horse-race and personality-driven political reporting as being a poor guide for citizen action. University of Washington Professor W. Lance Bennett notes that this kind of work can undermine issue-based reporting that might provide more useful information to the electorate.

DC correspondents don’t see it this way. Surprisingly, they make an argument that Beltway-focused coverage is actually advantageous and useful to local communities—even if a personality-driven story might not say much about how a federal decision impacts readers back home.

Jessica Wehrman, a Washington correspondent for The Columbus Dispatch, explained how personality profiles that talk about the politician rather than his activities can help readers. “On a basic level, it’s what is their lawmaker like, is he or she a backslapper, a deal maker, averse to the process of new laws?” It’s not just issues that voters need to know about, she says; coverage of personalities in Congress also matters because it gives voters an understanding of how those leaders govern. 

Yet Pew notes: “The heavy focus on Congress often carries through to an inside Washington lens.” The report even quotes a number of journalists talking about getting “sucked into the bubble” of the Washington mentality, with a reporter from MinnPost describing his need for a reality check because his editor will remind him, “nobody in Minnesota cares about that.”

While Gillman, the Dallas Morning News bureau chief, says that some reporters get caught up in inside-the-Beltway jargon and “gobbledygook,” he argues that most are much more focused on “finding ways to make our reporting relevant to those back home.”

Pew associate research director Jesse Holcomb cautions that the findings certainly didn’t speak for “every single regional reporter or every single daily newspaper with a DC correspondent.” But Pew’s work provides an impetus to ask these hard questions about what DC correspondents are and what value they bring. Some political scientists, like John Zaller of UCLA, argue that journalists shouldn’t be covering mundane daily events, but should instead provide substantive coverage when there are real consequences for citizens, sounding a “burglar alarm.”

Of course, journalists and media critics argue there are intangible benefits to having boots on the ground, whereby journalists can keep an eye on Congress, but these advantages are much harder to quantify. 

In fact, the Pew report offers what may be some of the first evidence that there is not much enterprise reporting coming out of Washington. For all types of journalists covering Washington—DC-based staff of local newspapers, newspaper staff not in DC, wire service reporters, or other national media outlets (like broadcast or digital only)—fewer than one in eight stories qualified as enterprise reporting using Pew’s metrics. Rather, about 80 percent of the stories were the result of something someone in government said or in response to something that government did.

While journalists report feeling stretched too thin, they also say there is still a place for enterprise—and perceive themselves as doing quite a bit of it. Editors still say they want enterprise stories. Cheryl Carpenter, the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy, argues that “enterprise is a proud tradition” for the newspaper chain.

“What I can tell you about my job is that a very, very large [part], perhaps, the majority are enterprise weekend pieces,” says Wehrman, the correspondent for The Columbus Dispatch and the Dayton Daily News. She gave the example of a story she had written on immigration hurdles for Ohio residents, including one whose husband had been deported and stranded in the Middle East for the past six years.

There’s a fundamental problem, though, with asking journalists—or anyone—to respond to critiques that question the work they do. And in social science, there’s a methodological problem too, a “self-report bias” that makes it hard for people to accurately assess what they do as opposed to what they say they do.

Most observers of journalism—and journalists too—would like to think that the work they do in Washington is making a difference. But there is little actual data that quantifies their impact. Not only do we need to know more about the work journalists are doing in DC if we are to justify their being there, we also need to ask hard questions about whether they are doing their jobs well rather than assuming that their sheer existence is some kind of normative good.

If we can answer these questions, we’ll not only improve Washington reporting, but perhaps also make the case that it really does matter—and even have some evidence to back it up.

*An earlier version of this story misstated the number of states with no local newspaper staff on Capitol Hill.

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.