Panel Discusses the "Now What?" of Washington-Based Regional Reporting
May 15, 2009 | By Gil Klein
They called it “a journalism Dark Age” and a time when “the cop will be off the beat,” but the Washington reporters speaking at a National Press Club forum Wednesday agreed that after a couple years of disintegration, Washington reporting will re-emerge in some still-undefined model.
“Regional reporting is not coming back,” said Andy Alexander, who was chief of the Cox Newspapers bureau that folded last month. “What remains of that model is in danger. We have to dwell on the future.”
Alexander, now the Washington Post’s ombudsman, was speaking at a NPC forum on “The Disappearance of the Washington Bureau and What Comes Next.”
Since before the Civil War, papers from outside of Washington sent correspondents here to report on their local congressional delegations and on how the federal government affects the lives of their readers.
But as newspapers combat technological and economic upheavals destroying their economic base, one of the first things to be cut is the Washington correspondent. A report released in February by the Project for Journalism Excellence found that since the 1980s, the number of newspapers accredited to cover Congress has fallen by two-thirds.
And that report came out before the Cox bureau, with its 17 newspapers, and the Media General News Service, which served 23 papers, shut their doors. Two of Cox’s newspapers kept Washington No Media General paper now has one. correspondents.
What is lost, Alexander said, is the interchange between the newspaper and the Washington correspondent that ties the reporting to what is important in that particular community.
“Twenty-seven states have no Washington correspondents,” said Clark Hoyt, who was the Knight-Ridder Washington editor before the company was sold to McClatchy. “That’s a tremendous loss of opportunity for the general public to understand what their representatives are doing or the news media to perform their traditional watchdog role.”
Hoyt, now the New York Times’ public editor, said what will emerge will be some kind of journalism business model that is Web-based and not as dependent on advertising as today’s newspapers.
McClatchy Bureau Chief John Walcott said it may be too soon to write the obituary for the Washington bureau because his reporters are still providing regional Washington news for the company’s newspapers.
Although sometimes, Walcott said, he feels like he is in one of the last rounds of a “Survivor” show.
“I have not seen anywhere a substitute for the kind of traditional hard-nosed regional reporting that won Copley a Pulitzer Prize for exposing that their congressman was a crook,” he said.
However, he conceded that it would be difficult now for any regional Washington bureau to devote the time and manpower to an investigation like the one Copley did. He said he was discouraged by the decline in Washington reporting just when it is needed most.
“We may be heading into an undefined journalism Dark Ages here,” he said, because reporting on the complexities of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plans requires sophisticated reporting that is hard to do.
“That kind of reporting does not come easily,” he said. “We may have to live without it for a while.”
To survive, he said, the McClatchy bureau is creating alliances with the Christian Science Monitor to provide international news and with Kaiser Health News, a foundation-supported health information service.
Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico, had a pessimistic view of what is happening not only to Washington bureaus but to the papers that used to support them.
“I think virtually every newspaper with the exception of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal is either not going to exist in 18 months or will exist as a shell of its former self,” he said.
But he was equally confident that from these ashes will rise new forms of journalism that will replace these newspapers or augment the ones that survive.
Already, Politico has developed alliances with 65 newspapers to provide free content. In return, the newspapers provide Politico with some of their Web inventory. “This is an experiment, and I have no idea if it will work,” VandeHei said.
In addition, he said, Politico is talking to several newspapers about the possibility that it would provide the kind of regional reporting that they used to get from their Washington bureaus. But this won’t happen, he said, until the newspapers have some money to pay for it.
One of the new journalism innovations providing a resurgence in regional Washington reporting is the MinnPost, an independent on-line news service based in Minneapolis. The MinnPost is a non-profit company that generates revenue from foundation grants and membership donations as well as advertising. If the MinnPost wants to do a serious investigative story, it finds a foundation to underwrite the project.
MinnPost used a grant from the Knight Foundation to hire Cynthia Dizikes to be its Washington correspondent.
“When I came here, the sorry state of affairs for reporters who covered the Minnesota delegation was that I doubled the coverage,” Dizikes said.
She said she does a lot of the work that regular WashingtonWashington correspondents do to cover the delegation while writing blog posts for the Web site. But with little time to do in-depth reporting, she said, a new correspondent has to be resourceful in finding ways of gathering information.
One way to mitigate the loss of Washington correspondents, Dizikes said, is to take advantage of the research done by non-profit watchdog organizations that are crunching numbers and offering them to reporters.
Washington does have a lot of journalistic skeptical eyes watching things, VandeHei said. They are just different than the usual ones. Internet journalism endeavors such as the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo are doing serious reporting, and more will follow, he predicted.
“The problem is it’s harder to figure out whose skeptical eye we can actually trust,” he said. “But I do think there are a lot of eyes out there.”