January 16, 2013
( J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press)
( J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press)

First in a series of 51 to 55 blog posts on Capitol Hill publications.
Newsroom reductions continue gnawing at the country’s reportorial muscle. The Cedar Rapids Gazette is doing layoffs. The Washington Times is doing layoffs. The Newark Star-Ledger is doing layoffs. The New York Times is doing buyouts, as is the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. Disclosure: This cannot be an exhaustive inventory.

Such stories have become so common over the past decade as to puncture much of their news value: Over that time, newspapers have taken a financial beating. The cratering of the classifieds business thanks to Craigslist; the move of readership to the Internet and its measly ad rates; the shriveling of local advertising sources — they’ve all pounded the sector.

That woeful business dynamic, though, doesn’t apply to the publications upon which Washington types rely for their scoops and data on Congress and the executive branch: National Journal, The Hill, CQ Roll Call, Politico, and Bloomberg Government (BGOV).

Those publications have shared a honey pot unavailable to the Newark Star-Ledger and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Contributions of sweet goo come from entities like the Association of American Railroads, Goldman Sachs, Boeing and many, many others with a lot at stake in Congress and federal agencies. Such organizations — associations and lobby shops and corporations — have not only financed a $100 million-plus advocacy advertising market for these publications, but also they’ve also formed a market for the premium “insider” news and data that several of the publications produce.

So the Capitol Hill publications shouldn’t be giving off signs of distress. Only they are. As reported by FishbowlDC and Politico, the past half-year has seen downsizing moves by CQ Roll Call (which shed around 30 employees over the summer), the National Journal (which dropped ten newsroom positions in a reorganization) and, most recently, BGOV (the online subscription info-service is losing some positions in a “realignment”).

Politico, meanwhile, has drawn some scrutiny for some early-year moves after a staff member reported on Twitter that he’d been “laid off.” Media critics are debating whether a few January departures constitute a “layoff,” and Politico maintains it’ll be growing in 2013. We’ll see.

Does that mean that The Hill is the most stable publication in the group? “We’re not in the process of and have not been doing a program of layoffs or staff trimming, but obviously there’s staff turnover,” says Editor-in-Chief Hugo Gurdon, who says his editorial staffing fluctuates between 60 and 65 people. Though The Hill hasn’t filled all the positions that go vacant, says Gurdon, it could well add folks this year. “We have got plans which will need hiring new members of staff,” he says, though he didn’t say just what those plans are.

Whatever they are, the plans have to be good. As the staff turmoil in the Capitol Hill publishing sector suggests, competition is more intense than ever, thanks in large part to the launch of Politico in 2007. “The Washington policy and media market was a cozy and profitable little club of sorts for decades,” says Justin Smith, president of the Atlantic Media Company, which oversees The Atlantic, National Journal, CongressDaily, The Hotline and Government Executive. “Politico introduced to the Washington market a disruptive digital editorial formula.”

Robert Merry, former CEO of Congressional Quarterly and now editor of The National Interest, sees more consolidation and retrenchment: “It’s getting more and more difficult for these organizations to thrive altogether,” he says.

How difficult? Stay tuned for between 51 and 55 entries.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.