The Media Today

The Death of the Washington Bureau

January 26, 2024
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: The hallways are empty outside the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, April 29, 2020 Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This week sucked.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times laid off 115 people, more than 20 percent of its total staff. If those cuts went to the bone, in Washington, DC, it was more like an amputation: nearly half of the bureau’s journalists were let go.

Personally, this was a gut punch. I’d been freelancing for the paper for much of last year, helping the Washington bureau cover a gap—it already lacked a full-time congressional reporter—and now friends of mine had lost their jobs.

But I’m not just mourning for them. 

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Shira Stein noted, these latest cuts leave just herself, two people from McClatchy, and the five people at the LA Times as the only journalists covering DC for California-based newspapers. That’s eight print reporters covering the entire federal government—for a state of thirty-nine million people.

That’s still better than much of the country. Most states don’t have a single reporter covering Washington on the ground anymore. 

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This is corrosive to democracy in many ways, some more obvious than others. The most glaring problem is that lawmakers aren’t held to account. There’s no one to confront congressmen on a daily basis or make sure they’re not breaking the law. Local issues don’t get scrutinized. And with the exception of camera-hungry congressmen and national figures, most lawmakers barely get covered at all.

This worsens polarization. Without local coverage, the only times most Americans hear about their representatives is from campaign ads or when they’re on national news talking about partisan issues. That makes it harder for politicians who break with their party to get something done to survive politically—and it makes it harder for issues of local importance that might have crossover appeal to gain any traction. If the only way to gain attention (and raise money) is to talk about national issues on Fox News or MSNBC, why bother taking a political risk to cross the aisle and try to solve problems that actually matter to your district? 

In this environment, a few loudmouths become national stars and fundraising powerhouses. Everyone else is just an anonymous Democrat or Republican, easily caricatured and attacked by their opponents come election season no matter what they’ve done for the people back home.

It wasn’t always like this—even recently. In the late 2000s, the New York Daily News, which then had a robust DC bureau, led the drumbeat to get healthcare and financial compensation for the first responders and victims of the 9/11 attacks. Members of Congress had to be publicly shamed for months by cancer-ridden and dying firemen, EMTs, and police before they eventually created the program. Most of the bill’s opponents were Republicans, but it got passed partly because members from the New York tristate area from both parties, who fought hard for bipartisan support, got local recognition—and credit—from the Daily News. The paper’s crusading editorials won a Pulitzer; beat reporter Michael McAuliff’s reporting played such a key role that Democratic senator Chuck Schumer gave him one of the pens he said President Obama had used to sign the measure into law. 

McAuliff is now at a healthcare trade publication.

“Fewer reporters are paying attention to their local lawmakers and the more mundane but really important things they do,” he told me, “while more reporters are tasked with following the loudest and most controversial lawmakers. It means local readers don’t understand what their representatives do all day—that they often agree on many basic things like funding local hospitals and roads—or when and why those lawmakers fail to help them. It would be hard to hold someone accountable for failing to pass 9/11 laws if no one knew who failed.”

I’m likely the last Washington bureau chief for the Daily News. I arrived in 2015, and when I was there, I covered the 9/11 program’s reauthorization. While I kicked the hell out of the Republicans who didn’t want to renew, Long Island Republican congressman Peter King was one of my best and most-quoted sources as he worked across the aisle with Democrats. By then, the paper was already a shell of its former self—one 2008 photo that hung on the mostly empty office wall included more than two dozen reporters, all of them since gone. But it was still a top-ten circulation newspaper nationally; I had an experienced colleague and was told the paper planned to hire a bureau chief. Then layoffs hit, and I was alone.

My final months in the job were the first of the Trump administration; I spent most days at the White House until the daily briefings wrapped, then sprinted to Congress to catch afternoon and evening votes. When I left the paper, it never hired a replacement, and it has been without full-time Washington coverage ever since.

As I write this column, my former colleagues at the New York Daily News are in the midst of a twenty-four-hour walkout to protest the “constant cuts and apparent commitment to shrinking the paper” of their current corporate overlords. There are barely fifty staff left.

At least New York–area readers still have Tom Brune and Laura Figueroa Hernandez at Newsday and the New York Times reporters when they decide to cover issues that matter to New Yorkers. Most states don’t have anyone on the ground in Washington.

For years, Emma Dumain was the sole reporter covering Washington for a South Carolina readership—first with the Charleston Post and Courier, then for McClatchy’s five South Carolina papers, including The State. She spent years building relationships, understanding, and trust with South Carolina’s congressional delegation, even when they didn’t like her coverage. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham knew her well and asked after her kids; they’d often stop to chat with her or wave her into elevators with them, even on days when they ignored the rest of us as we tried to ask questions.

When Dumain left the Post and Courier, in 2017, the paper didn’t hire a reporter to replace her. When she left McClatchy, in 2020, it didn’t backfill that position either. That meant there was no local reporter in DC to cover Graham as he went through his brief break with then-president Donald Trump on January 6, 2021, or his sheepish later return to the fold. South Carolina representative Tom Rice was one of just ten Republicans to vote to impeach Trump after the January 6 riots. National reporters were left googling the little-known backbencher to figure out who he was. Dumain knew him well—but had already departed for E&E News, a publication owned by Politico that focuses on energy and the environment.

“For all of those members who are not household names, it’s a huge problem that there is no one in DC keeping track of what they do,” she told me.

When Jonathan Salant started covering Washington, in the 1980s, he was one of more than a half-dozen just from upstate New York on the congressional beat. By the time NJ Advance Media, which owns the Newark Star-Ledger, laid him off last year, they were all gone—and he was the only reporter left covering the entire state of New Jersey (two have since joined from smaller publications). Thirteen of the fourteen members of New Jersey’s bipartisan congressional delegation wrote a note to protest.

“[New Jersey Democratic senator] Bob Menendez is under indictment. And every day he stops to talk to the press,” Salant said. “And the problem is that the largest newspaper in New Jersey isn’t there to get to talk to him anymore.”

Salant is now at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—and said he’s at the only Pennsylvania publication with a full-time DC bureau, now that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Washington correspondent left for a national business publication last year.

The Tampa Bay Times, Omaha World-Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Columbus Dispatch, Denver Post, and Salt Lake Tribune all had Washington correspondents until recently, just to name a few. They’re all gone, casualties of layoffs or off to national or insider publications with more functional business models. Their desks in the Senate have been handed over to trade publications or national outlets or left as places for reporters without permanent desks to squat for a day while they cover Congress.

It’s bleak everywhere.

Fully 130 local newspapers closed in 2023, according to a study by Northwestern University’s Medill Journalism School—an average of more than ten a month. Two-thirds of newspaper journalism roles have been wiped out since 2005—forty-three thousand total jobs. The industry is in free fall almost across the board: cable news organizations are laying people off in an election year (when they usually expand), NPR recently made cuts, and even the mighty Washington Post just completed a large round of buyouts.

But if the LA Times—the largest, most powerful paper not on the Eastern Seaboard—can’t maintain a serious presence in the nation’s capital, who can?

“It’s very, very bad for democracy,” Dumain said.

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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the size of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s DC bureau

Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.