July 16, 2009

The New Washington Press Corps

The Implications of the New Washington Media

If the press corps in Washington aimed at the American public in general is shrinking, and the one aimed at self-defined specialized groups is growing, what does that mean about the kind of monitoring of government the press engages in? And how might that change how public opinion is formed and shaped, and does that have implications for policy and the political process?

The answers are necessarily somewhat subjective, but the evidence, and even the feelings of the journalists involved in the process, suggest a growing knowledge gap between those who place high value on information and—organized usually inside professional settings, are willing to pay a premium for that information—and a general citizenry organized more loosely by geography that will find it harder to keep tabs on what is going on.

In short, those influencing policy have access to more information than ever, while those affected by those policies—but not organized to shape them—are likely to be less informed.

The decline of regional newspaper bureaus, for instance, means that sometimes entire state congressional delegations are either under-covered or uncovered completely. Few, for example, believe a national daily or news magazine would have invested the reporting time to follow up the suspicious travel patterns of Southern California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Those initial tips led the Washington-based Copley News Service and the San Diego Union-Tribune to unearth corrupt practices serious enough to send Cunningham to jail and win them the 2006 Pulitzer for national reporting.

Less dramatic, yet still important, stories also disappear with the closure of smaller bureaus. Voters in Maine, for example, will likely not see, any time soon, the story Portland Press-Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Washington correspondent Jonathan Kaplan was researching when he was laid off last July. The story, about the curious relationship between his state’s two senators, Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, is of little interest to any newspaper outside the state, and with no other Washington-based reporter writing solely from the perspective of Maine residents; he was probably the only one with the time and the interest to report it. The Press-Herald was the last newspaper with its own Washington bureau in a state that in the mid-1980s had four. An Associated Press regional reporter in Washington is assigned to track developments of interest to Maine residents, but he also has other responsibilities, including covering for three other states and national labor issues.

“In a small state like Maine, most people have met Snow or Collins, but people don’t know who they really are, what they do, how they interact and how they make decisions,” said Kaplan.
A Washington news bureau of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism decision to refocus its reporting efforts more on enterprise than beat reporting for smaller, under-served markets also has removed an important provider of congressional delegation coverage to residents of sparsely-populated plains states such as North and South Dakota. Medill Washington Director and Bureau Chief Ellen Shearer said she was unaware if Medill’s clients in these areas have since made alternative arrangements for coverage but added, “There are certainly areas of the country that may not be getting news about their members of Congress now.”
As local outlets abandon coverage of national affairs, one worry is that different public perspectives are lost. Media more closely tied to far away communities tend to see national politics differently than the elite media in New York and Washington. Former Knight Ridder and now McClatchy Bureau Chief John Walcott believes that writing for regional newspapers played an important role in his bureau’s more skeptical coverage of the run up to the Iraq war than was provided by the national press. At a panel honoring the bureau for winning the first I.F. Stone Award from Harvard last year for that coverage, Wolcott was asked why his bureau was different.

“One distinction between the way we looked at this march to war and the way the Washington Post and New York Times did was driven by the fact that we don’t own newspapers in Washington or New York,” he said. “We’re not writing for those people. We were writing, and it was very much on my mind the whole time, for the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and brothers and the sons and the daughters of the people who were going to be sent to fight this war because we own the paper in Columbus, Georgia where Fort Benning is; [in] Lexington, Kentucky, near Fort Campbell; in Fort Worth, Texas, near Fort Hood; [in] Wichita and Kansas City near Fort Riley. That’s who we were writing for, and that’s who we were thinking about. Is the administration making a case that justifies sending those young men and women into what the administration was arguing were going to be clouds of sarin gas and heaven knows what else? Whereas in Washington, it was all about what was going on inside the Beltway. I think it’s a different perspective.”

One counterpoint to the larger retrenchment of mainstream media’s Washington coverage has been Washington-headquartered National Public Radio, which has expanded its news-gathering staff dramatically over the past decade—from 267 in 2000 to more than 400 at the end of 2008. Its staff covering the federal government has grown from 15 to 20, including new beats focusing on the national policy dimensions of health, the environment and immigration, while NPR’s 23-person Science and Health desk also deals with a variety of federal policy issues, ranging from stem cell research to the abortion debate.

The network’s programming listening audience rose from 13.4 million in 1998 to 22.4 million near the end of 2008. “Public radio has bucked the trend,” said Kevin Klose, who served as NPR’s president for over a decade before stepping down in late 2008.

However, the sharp drop in corporate sponsorships during the second half of 2008 triggered by the sharp national economic downturn has led to a $23 million budget shortfall, and in late 2008, the first staff cutbacks at NPR in recent years were announced. So far the 64 jobs lost have not directly affected the network’s federal government coverage.

Critics also tend to point out that National Public Radio, for all of its quality, does not generally lean as heavily toward investigative journalism.

If the press aimed at the general public is disappearing, what is it that the rising niche media are offering instead? Those practicing the new specialized media argue that it is of the highest quality. Indeed, they argue their more sophisticated audiences are even more demanding.  

“You have to deliver value because this is a professional audience,” said Braun of Environment and Energy Publishing. “Their time is valuable. You need to get them good information so you have to hire good reporters and good, smart editors.”  

Often, the business model depends on it. For example, the newsletters produced by E & E Publishing, make their money from high-priced subscriptions, not on delivering a wide audience to advertisers as does the general media. A single annual subscription to ClimateWire costs $3,495, with sliding scale discounts for multi-person subscriptions. A sister newsletter called GreenWire, runs $3,195 a year with a similar scale of discounting. Many Capitol Hill publications work on a different model, which rely heavily on corporate or government image advertising to reach the small, but elite audiences of decision-makers that read their products carefully.

Charlie Mitchell, editor of Roll Call admits that it’s a huge advantage to have a self-identified market that’s vitally interested in the news he is producing.

“Lots of big city dailies are struggling to define who their readers are and struggling to define what they are delivering that the reader isn’t getting somewhere else,” said Charlie Mitchell, the editor of Roll Call. “We know our readers think we’re important. That’s a good place to be.”

That may alleviate the pressure of doing trendy stories that have little substance. But it is unclear how this coverage impacts democratic process.

To get a sense of what the niche media are like, consider the January 21 edition of ClimateWire. On that day, the online newsletter devoted more than half the stories to the new Obama presidency, but it did so solely through the prism of climate change. The lead story, for example, focused on how Obama’s decision to freeze all pending federal regulations might affect major climate change-related rules. Another speculated that Obama’s proposed stimulus package might boost renewable energy projects. Another niche publication, Platt’s Oilgram News Service, ignored the new administration completely in its Jan 22 edition. Its only Washington-datelined story was a report of negotiations between private sector companies to build a $1 billion natural gas pipeline from Eastern Texas through much of Louisiana.

There certainly seems to be no lack of proven skills among the journalists involved in the niche media. The rise of the niche media, indeed, has effectively reversed the traditional flow of talented reporters in Washington that for decades ran from these smaller, narrowly focused special interest trade publications to mainstream media newsrooms such as the Washington Post or the Washington bureaus of Time, the New York Times and other prestigious mainstream outlets. Increasingly, the movement today is in the other direction.

Two examples of this trend: Former Wall Street Journal Pentagon correspondent John Fialka, editor of the online newsletter, ClimateWire, runs a staff that includes reporters who previously worked in Washington for the Houston Chronicle, the Denver Post and the (Los Angeles) Daily News. Veteran reporter Lyle Denniston, one of the most respected bylines in Supreme Court coverage while writing for dailies including the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe, now writes about the Court mainly for a loyal following on his own blog called SCOTUSblog, which is hosted by the Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He also writes for Boston radio station, WBUR.

But Denniston acknowledges that his audience is now narrower. “The overwhelming amount of energy I put into (my work) is for a small slice of the community that’s shaping public policy, the character and the detail of the law,” said Denniston. “They are getting 50 years of experience.” (To a lesser extent, mainstream news agencies have also benefited from this migration of bylines from daily newspapers.)

There are some examples that suggest the niche media and the opinion media can, on occasion, function as a watchdog on government, even if their audience is specialized and small.

Joshua Marshall, editor-publisher of the political blog, Talking Points Memo, is widely credited with uncovering the political dimension behind the firings of several highly regarded federal prosecutors, which eventually led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and won Marshall a George Polk Award for his work. “Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall and his staff … connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration’s bidding,” noted the Polk Awards announcement.

Roll Call was the first to report the arrest of former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig for allegedly attempting to solicit sex in a Minneapolis Airport public toilet, beating the Idaho Statesman, which had been working on a related story about Craig. And it was Government Executive, a small circulation business magazine for federal government managers, who exposed Census Bureau mismanagement of a $650 million program to eliminate paperwork by equipping 2010 census-takers with hand-held computers.

But these are largely exceptions for a part of the Washington media known more for its ability to report exhaustively on narrow, complex issues, than for aggressive investigative or what some call public service journalism.

In the end, virtually all of those interviewed for this study expressed concern about the potential impact a shrinking flow of information to the general public would have on the democratic process.

The migration of respected bylines from daily newspapers to a thriving group of niche publications also carries implications of its own about the current state of America’s democracy. To the applause of the public at large, incoming president Barack Obama campaigned to “end the failed policies … that put special interests ahead of working families.” But as he adjusts to Washington, he will deal with a media that has seen talent and experience flow away from mainstream outlets that serve “main street” and moved instead to niche publications that serve Washington’s special interests.

“All the reporters for Climate Wire were people laid off from regional newspapers,” said Environment & Energy editor Braun. “These were people I’d never have been able to recruit.”

“As a citizen, I have some discomfort with that,” admitted newspaperman-turned-special interest blogger Denniston.

New York Times Washington bureau chief Baquet goes further: “It means that, in the end, members will not be judged by what they do for their states, but by what they do or don’t do for special interests. That’s not good for democracy.”

Washington reporters who have covered Capitol Hill believe the decline of mainstream reporting–especially the closure of bureaus representing smaller regional papers that focus on their state’s congressional delegation—favors incumbents because the loss of neutral watchdogs give them greater latitude to define themselves.   

Suzanne Struglinksi, who lost her job as the Deseret News Washington correspondent last summer when the Salt Lake City-based paper closed its bureau in the capital, says context is vital. “If a member puts out a press release that he’s introduced a bill, it makes him look good, but it may not include all the information in the legislation. If it’s the fifth time he’s done this and the bill’s not going anywhere, isn’t that of interest? Isn’t that worth telling the reader?”

Utah’s congressional delegation, once covered from Washington by two Salt Lake City radio and television outlets, as many as six newspapers and a regional AP reporter in the mid-1980s, is today tracked by one remaining paper, the Salt Lake Tribune and a regional AP reporter, whose beat responsibility also includes developments related to three other states—Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Elected members of Congress and those who work on their staff reject the idea that a shrinking local media somehow favors them. They too tend to view the disappearance of regional reporters as a worrisome development.

“It creates greater distance between the general public and Washington,” commented Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah). “There’s so much going on in Washington that affects the state that we all lose when there’s a reduction of this information flow.”

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar’s Press Secretary Andy Fisher noted that Lugar’s high profile as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, nuclear proliferation expert and former presidential candidate give him constant national exposure, but a dwindling group of Washington-based reporters working for Indiana papers make it much harder for him to get into the home-state media.

“It’s a bad thing what’s happening,” he said.