Members Only

Two cheers for high-cost subscription journalism
March 24, 2011

Washington beckons as a land of opportunity for journalists today, at least in the realm of high-cost subscription news. We’re cheering, but wary, too. A new unit of Bloomberg News is hiring 150 editorial staffers, essentially doubling the size of its DC bureau, to provide detailed coverage of federal legislation, regulation, and government spending. Politico has hired another forty or so journalists for its new “pro” brand, a high-priced news service that will write fast and furiously about every major and minor happening in energy, health care, and technology policy and politics. National Journal last April offered buyouts to all of its hundred-plus editorial employees, but has been on a hiring spree since then to bring on nearly fifty new journalists. Meanwhile, CQ Roll Call, moving beyond the staff shakeout that followed the combination of the two Washington policy stalwarts in their September 2009 merger, is also launching new services and hiring fresh talent.

This is welcome news for job-starved journalists, especially those with wonk credentials. They get a chance to write, to become expert in complicated material, to hone survival instincts in a highly competitive arena, to receive guidance from veteran editors, and to score scoops that will be noticed by a hyper-wired Washington press corps.

Perhaps even more important for the news business, these new services could produce income streams to support additional serious reporting in the public interest, in more robust newsrooms.

Even though none of this new muscle was hired to write stories for the mainstream news consumer, hopefully those of us without the money or the interest in government minutiae to subscribe directly will still benefit from their work. Because of their narrowly cast beats, they should be able to penetrate the spin and hack down stories to essential facts, which will become the building blocks for other reporters (with due credit given to the publication that got the scoop, of course). Since the Washington bureaus of many regional publications have been decimated, some parts of government had begun to feel a little like ghost towns. But with all the new journalists scouring the halls of Congress, federal agencies, and K Street, there should be fewer places for politicians and policymakers to hide.

There are dangers lurking in the Washington job rush. These new hires will be trained to write for an elite audience with narrow, special interests. For example, the mandate for reporters and analysts working for Bloomberg Government is to quantify the impact of government actions on business and industry; they are writing for the C-suite at corporations, and access to their website costs $5,700 a year per person. Politico, the masters at making political process a racy read for the voyeuristic masses, will focus its new talent on picking out the sexiest bits of the policy maw and serving them to well-heeled insiders for a minimum of $2,495 a year.

When reporting so close to the ground, it’s tough to resist cozying up to friendly leakers in an expense-account foxhole. Aggressive stories that investigate potential abuses of power by those special interests aren’t likely to top many of these story lists. It’s also difficult to manage cynicism; rarely will these journalists be asked to report out how policy proposals affect real people’s lives. Without that contact “outside the Beltway,” as they say, it’s easy for a journalist to become a prisoner of its value system. That would be a shame for these reporters’ careers and a loss for a public that needs to know how power works for and against the public interest.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Our hope is that these new hires will get the encouragement they need to write graceful prose from time to time. They should take pride in putting their scoops in context while also ferreting out details of complex proposals; understanding the meat of an issue makes one dangerous to sources who wish to obfuscate. And that’s good journalism.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.