Trump circus squeezes a key media niche on Capitol Hill

November 21, 2017
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is swarmed by reporters as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Every Tuesday that Congress is in session, senators journey from their offices via the Senate subway to ornate dining rooms on either side of the Capitol chamber—Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other. It’s an invaluable tradition: Catch a senator on her way into a lunch, ask your question.

The lunches had become such a scene by the spring of 2017 that publications sent not only their usual subject-matter policy wonks and political news breakers, but their satirists, too. The Senate press gallery—one of the governing bodies of congressional reporters—issued a warning: “Collectively, the press following Senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned some might get hurt.” Then came an attempt, abetted by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, to curb the ability of radio and television reporters to film unscheduled interviews in the halls of the Senate.

It’s not hard to see why throwing a microphone and camera in front of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to capture a non-answer on a secret healthcare bill is important to the functioning of the Fourth Estate. But it’s more important still to the journalists in the trenches of Washington, DC’s ecosystem of trade-policy journals, which serve a highly sophisticated, “insidery” audience that pays a premium for their information. The feeding frenzy that came to town with Donald Trump means it’s harder for trade-pub reporters to do their jobs asking questions about policy, instead of the latest Trump tweet.

The feeding frenzy that came to town with Donald Trump means it’s harder for trade-pub reporters to do their jobs asking questions about policy, instead of the latest Trump tweet.

The lunches were once a prime opportunity to snag a senator for a question on a topic like regulatory reform, or to corner a staff member who isn’t likely to make an email query or phone call from a trade publication a high priority on a heavy news day (which, these days, is every day). The reporters who need access to those Hill denizens have a unique set of needs and challenges, and must be craftier in their approach.

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The ranks of DC’s trade publication reporters have swelled in recent years. A 2015 Washington Monthly analysis by John Heltman found that a larger share of accredited members of the Senate Daily and Senate Periodical press galleries are journalists working for trade publications than 25 years ago. Heltman’s story argued, among other things, that the DC trade press—which he defines as publications whose audiences are comprised of “lobbyists, corporate executives, Hill staffers, Wall Street traders, think tank researchers, contractors, regulators, advocacy groups, and trade association policy wonks” willing to pay large sums for actionable news—is central to the flow of information out of the Beltway.

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“It’s sort of like how everyone says American media lives and dies by local news: Trade pubs are the local news of Washington,” says Joe Marks, who covers cybersecurity for the Atlantic Media Company’s NextGov. He previously covered cybersecurity for Politico Pro and intellectual property for Bloomberg BNA.

Marks notes—as many Washington reporters will—that these are publications mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal read to understand the topics they must cover on a bigger-picture plane. “They pay attention to things other publications won’t pay attention to,” he says. “It would be counter to the principles of good journalism for the periodical press gallery” to restrict access in any way.

Showing up to hearings, committee markups, and business meetings is often the only way to get the information you need when you’re a reporter tasked with tracking every last legislative move according to topic, says Manuel Quiñones, editor of E&E Daily, among the offerings from Environment & Energy Publishing, a key player in the environmental trade press space.

Reporting for a publication like E&E for Congress can have its advantages. During weeks in July consumed by Senate Republicans’ attempts to pass a healthcare bill, all eyes were on Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote. Quiñones and his reporters had a different question entirely: When was the new energy bill coming up for debate? They caught her in person.

“She lit up,” Quiñones says. “She was happy to answer and she even said, ‘Oh good, somebody not asking me about healthcare.’”

Rick Weber, who has covered policy beats including healthcare, environment, energy, and cybersecurity for the family-owned Inside Washington Publishers for over 30 years, says in the current administration, it’s even more likely that the less glamorous, strictly policy matters that tend to be the bread-and-butter of his publications go uncovered.

“Some of it is very bipartisan and it gets very little attention, but it still has a major impact on your audience and your readership. Those members and staff are very encouraged and interested to talk to you, because they feel, ‘Okay, somebody is still interested in something of substance.’” (Disclosure: I used to work with Weber at Inside Washington Publishers, where I had stints in both their defense and environment groups.)

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Sometimes, a reporter might know more than a lawmaker on a certain issue. During those times, the lawmaker might delegate a particularly in-the-weeds policy question to a staffer, who will typically follow up with a reporter’s question via email. But the opposite can also be true: In instances of impromptu face time, a specialized reporter for a trade publication can glean from members what that lawmaker does know in and out: procedure and process.

“If you ever ask a procedural question, the member or senator is almost always the one who answers that,” Marks says. “They can give you a five-minute dissertation on it right then—it’s what they know, it’s what they have to understand.”

Marks and colleagues played catch-up on arcane Senate procedure when covering the passage of the 2015 Cybersecurity Act, largely because most of their time is spent digging into harder-to-crack federal agencies. (Some publications, like Inside Washington Publishers, aren’t subtle about this goal, naming their weekly newsletters and products Inside EPA, Inside the Pentagon, and so forth.) But since Congress is, among other things, a check on executive branch power, even reporters whose primary job is to eye such agencies would be stymied by any limits on access.

“Niche pubs are mostly creatures of the executive branch, but you need to go to Congress because they hear things you don’t,” Marks says. “And there is no requirement that the executive branch has to talk to you. You can call them out for not doing it, but it’s way tougher to get things out of the departments than Congress.”

Getting information that readers and subscribers really want can be challenging no matter your audience. But in a media climate that now revolves around shorter news cycles and even shorter attention spans, breaking through with a question about whether a public lands issue will be part of an appropriations rider requires a trade reporter to be an extra-shrewd tactician.

“You get into the scrum and you let everybody else ask the question on news of the day,” Quiñones explains. “And then when, finally, things start dying down, you kind of forget everyone else around you and just ask what you want to ask.” Sensing a change in topic, many mainstream reporters will then walk away from the scrum. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, this is not something I care about,’ and then when that happens, you have more time to do a one-on-one [with the lawmaker].”

Questions from trade pubs that are seen as wonky can be a source of frustration for reporters hustling for a quick quote on the trending topic of the day on the CNN ticker. Usually, reporters are cordial with one another, and those who work for trade publications are no more or less respected by their peers on the Hill. But Quiñones recalls managing an incident of intra-press “Twitter trashing.”

“One of our reporters asked a question—I don’t remember what, and actually got called out on Twitter by another more mainstream publication for being that one person to ask that question that was totally unrelated to the news of the day,” he says.

Quiñones reminds reporters he manages that they must maintain a thick skin; face time with lawmakers and their staffs is crucial, no matter how strong or reliable email relationships may be.

During the Senate’s 2012 negotiations over a mass transit reauthorization package, E&E was watching a particularly heated amendment that would loosen EPA regulations on coal ash, a waste product from burned coal. “It turned out to be one of the top issues that was going to make or break the bill, and if it wasn’t for the fact that negotiators were willing to come out of the chamber and update us, there was no way to know,” Quiñones recalls. “Our readers were massively interested in it.”


Strength in numbers

Before the Trump administration made newsmaking and news chasing into the high-wire circus act it’s become, trade reporters made up a large share of press on the Hill on any given day. Heltman, in his 2015 piece, noted the 2011 merger of “behemoth” business intelligence player Bloomberg with an employee-owned trade outlet, the Bureau of National Affairs, or BNA. The fusion of Bloomberg’s funds—it bought BNA for $990 million—and BNA’s deep subject-matter brainpower, allowed it to devote a deep well of reporters to legislative coverage.

Bloomberg BNA has about 15 reporters on Capitol Hill on any given day Congress is in session and uses a tag-team approach to tracking down members as a way around “the big crush,” says Heather Rothman, a Bloomberg BNA news director and 15-year veteran of Washington, DC journalism.

“You can say, ‘Hey, you’re going to be at a committee hearing and a certain senator is going to be there, I was also looking for them, could you please ask this question for me?’ And then that person is freed up,” she says.

The volume of reporters make [the members] more wary of media outlets in general. It surrounds them to a point they physically are not able to entertain your question, even if they wanted to.

So how does the job change for a trade reporter who finds their access questioned? Is press access really in danger, or was this spring’s kerfuffle much ado about nothing?

Bloomberg’s Rothman, who also chaired the Periodical Press Gallery’s Executive Committee of Correspondents from 2011 until November 2016, says there’s no real threat to access for any reporter on the Hill, at least not any more than usual. She says she has faith that the press gallery committee, which is comprised of reporters and editors, will carefully fight for the best access for members.

The press galleries fully support the journalists’ mission, but the sheer volume of reporters now on the Hill could mean a need to rethink strategies his reporters rely on, Quiñones says. Hoards of reporters ascending senate escalators before the Tuesday lunches isn’t just a safety risk for the senate’s septuagenarians—it’s not great for business, either.

“The more people you have surrounding lawmakers and asking them these questions about Trump tweets or whatever, it does get to a point where you can’t break through and ask the question you want to ask,” he says. “And then the volume of reporters make [the members] more wary of media outlets in general. It surrounds them to a point they physically are not able to entertain your question, even if they wanted to.”

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Amanda Palleschi is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, Washington City Paper and others. You can follow her on Twitter @APalleschi.