Public Editor

Washington Post public editor: how DC came to dominate media reporting

March 6, 2020

Ten years ago we had Steve Jobs, Bob Hope, Johnny Cash—and also Gawker, the New York Observer, David Carr, and Fishbowl NY. In other words, we had a ton of granular, day-to-day media reporting in New York City, which meant that the media news cycle was anchored by what was happening at New York media companies. Many of those outlets have since faded away. Today, one of the biggest employers of media reporters and critics in America is… the Washington Post. Has the center of media writing shifted from Gotham to DC?

I admit that this is a niche topic for media obsessives. And that though New York media reporting has shrunk at the major papers, it still thrives at outlets, aside from this one of course, including Vice, Slate, and the Huffington Post.

But it doesn’t have the same daily intensity, manic focus, and dedicated corps of obsessive bloggers and reporters.And these sorts of shifts in reporting focus can produce dramatic changes in the way the media industry is understood by the public. To paint with a very broad brush, New York-centric media coverage tends to be about the machinations inside businesses, and DC-centric media coverage is about how journalism interacts with politics. For the general public, which doesn’t particularly care about who is currently running Condé Nast or the New York Times, it is easier to relate to media coverage that has an apparent connection to politics. If the center of gravity of media reporters moves to DC, the consequence down the line is that more readers may view journalism through a political lens.

The Post has, by current industry standards, a huge roster of media writers. Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist; Erik Wemple is the media critic; Paul Farhi is the media beat reporter; and Sarah Ellison is a staff writer who frequently covers media, often in New York. (A decade ago, almost all of the Post’s media coverage was written by Howard Kurtz, who is now a simulacrum of a reporter for Fox News.) Compare these longstanding positions at the Post to the Times, where, despite having a bigger newsroom, media stories are written by a revolving roster of reporters. Ben Smith was only just hired as the media columnist,to replace Jim Rutenberg, whose media column disappeared for six months without anyone noticing.

When I asked the Post’s media writers, they were cautious to endorse the premise that DC had supplanted New York as the media coverage king. But they did venture thoughts as to why an underlying shift may have happened. Margaret Sullivan, who was the Times’ public editor before moving to the Post, told me that some of the Post’s attention to the beat may be a response to newfound reader interest.

“The media coverage, as I understand it, is well read, garnering some of the most readership [and] viewership within the features department,” she said. “And of course, with Trump in office, with local news in free fall, and the whole industry in technological transformation, there’s a lot to write about that fits in with the Post‘s public-accountability mission.”

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Farhi, too, cited the popularity of media stories, as well as the deep pockets of Jeff Bezos. He also pointed out the larger absurdity of the New York-centric mindset endemic to those of us here in the greatest city in the world. “All of the networks and most of the big media outfits are based in NYC and none seems to find it strange that they base their coverage of DC from NYC, a mere 230 miles away,” Farhi said. “In what other realm does this happen? Does San Francisco get covered from Los Angeles? Or Kansas City from St. Louis? No, but it’s routine in coverage of Washington.”

The specter of Donald Trump hangs over media coverage just like everything else. “As with all matters these days, you have to consider Trump,” Wemple said. “He has made demonization of mainstream media outlets the cornerstone, or a cornerstone, of his political existence. The lawsuit threats and actual lawsuits; the booting or shunning of reporters—Acosta, Karem, NPR; the constant tweets; the disappearance of the White House daily briefings; impeachment —they’re all DC-based stories.”

Ellison, whose stories are often rooted in New York (where she lives), agrees that media reporting is moving away from New York. She sees this as one effect of a change in where cultural power resides. “No question that mid-aughts granular New York media reporting has declined. That’s unfortunate for those of us who enjoyed its edge and ability to skewer the inflated figures who dominated that world. But those characters, to the extent that they are even around anymore, no longer have that much power,” she said. Much of the New York media reporting of a decade ago was built on a bizarre fascination with microfamous, niche characters. But that changed in favor of an even more niche obsession. “Trump’s obsession with cable news in general and Fox News in particular is a beat unto itself, with all kinds of reverberations.” Ellison said. “It dictates his personnel decisions, not to mention US policy and global affairs.”

In search of balance, I sought out the view from New York. I talked to Joe Pompeo and Michael Calderone, two longtime NYC media reporting veterans of the Observer and elsewhere, who are now both on the media beat at Vanity Fair. Pompeo said that, in earlier days, “so much of the coverage seemed to revolve around a collective, Manhattan-centric fascination with these big legacy print institutions, and all of the powerful characters and conflicts therein. Now, obviously, a lot (but not all) of that glitz and intrigue and power has faded away, and the large digital players that rose up in the meantime have never quite been covered in the same no-scoop-too-small fashion.”

“A lot of media coverage coming out of New York these days has a Beltway vibe,” said Pompeo. “For instance, I’ve had a handful of New York publishing industry-type scoops over the past couple of years, and the reason they were of interest at all was because they were all about these big-ticket book deals that reporters have landed because they’ve got the juice on Trump and the administration and our current political moment in Washington. At least for now, Trump is where so much of the action is, and the audience.”

Calderone, who has worked in both DC and NYC, has seen the shift firsthand. “When I left the Observer’s media column to join Politico in its early days, I got some confused looks in Manhattan… Reporting on politics and media, as a daily beat, wasn’t much a thing,” he said. In the later Obama years, the politics content of media coverage crept up, and as soon as Trump took control, it exploded, Calderone said. Now, the playing field has been tilted by the first president: a lifelong media creature. “Though there are still great New York media stories—and broader industry issues, like the collapse of regional newspapers and threats to local journalism—it seems inevitable that the more granular, inside-baseball coverage, like the comings and goings in the newsroom, would subside in this hyper-political moment.”

On the morning after election day in 2016, millions of New Yorkers woke up blinking in disbelief that a man they long considered a clown was running the country. Now, by sucking the spotlight away from Manhattan, Trump has gotten his revenge on the New York media.

But the Trump effect is even stronger than that. Much of the decline in the quantity of regular New York media reporting can be traced to two sources: the Observer and Gawker. The Observer is a shell of its former self, due to mismanagement by Jared Kushner, now a close Trump adviser. And Gawker no longer exists, due to a lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel, a prominent Trump backer.

At the very least, New York reporters can say to our friends in Washington: this is your problem now.

Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.