March 19, 2013

The Washington Examiner is ending its coverage of the Washington region, as first revealed by an Examiner staffer:

The Examiner followed up with a press release on the changes. Here they are:

  • The publication will cease to exist as a daily print product, instead becoming a Web site and weekly magazine. “The target readership for the print weekly will be 45,000 government, public affairs, advocacy, academia and political professionals in Washington, DC and state capitals.”
  • The transition will take place in June.
  • Layoffs are estimated in the range of 30, a staffer told the Washington City Paper.UPDATE: Correct that—87 laid off. Local news, sports and entertainment will go.
  • Reorienting the publication toward a singularly national focus will require hiring 20 new employees.
  • Stephen Smith, the Washington Examiner’s top editor, will be staying on and has issued a suitably executive quote: “I am pleased to be part of the new direction that we are charting for The Washington Examiner and look forward to overseeing a stellar group of journalists who will cover the Washington political scene in a unique way,” he said in the press release.

Calls and e-mails to the Examiner leadership have yet to yield any interviews.

Jenny Rogers, a former Examiner columnist who left the paper late last year, said she heard “not even a hint of a whisper” that the publication would be ditching its local coverage. “I actually felt like I had amazing job security,” says Rogers, who now works at the Washington City Paper.

Kytja Weir, the paper’s tremendous transit reporter, says of the change: “It sucks.” Nor did she and her colleagues have any notion that it was in the works, she says. (Even news editors were in the dark). With the Washington Times having scaled back its Metro coverage over the years and The Washington Post moving to a paywalled future, says Weir, “it’ll be a lot harder for people to get accountability journalism.”

Or just the news. On any given week, the Examiner heaved an enormous amount of content, though often in very small installments. Reporters would often have to shoehorn their copy into dispatches of 300-400 words. But whatever: The local coverage has blanketed the region, with two transportation beat reporters, two D.C. government reporters, a Maryland state house reporter, a Virginia state house reporters, two crime reporters and reporters covering Montgomery County, Fairfax County and Prince George’s County. That’s not counting around five people in sports.

A couple of the paper’s politics reporters will be staying on. Michael Hedges, the Examiner’s managing editor, will be leaving. In an eerie sort of way, firing all the local folks feels a bit overdue. That’s because the print product has always consisted of an awkward and nearly antagonistic cohabitation arrangement between solid, shoe-leather regional reporters and a whole crew of conservative gasbags popping off in the editorial section about tort reform or the misery of President Obama or some such. It was just a matter of time before one of the gangs swallowed the other.

As it moves toward this all-national-politics future, The Examiner’s parent company, Denver-based Clarity Media Group, is touting its understanding of media and demographics: “As a result of research and analysis conducted over the past year, we have determined that there is an opportunity to bring our style of investigative journalism and keen analysis and commentary to covering national government and politics. The re-positioned Washington Examiner will meet that demand,” said Ryan McKibben, Clarity’s president.

Those words have a certain resonance for longtime followers of the Examiner, which is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. As it launched the Washington Examiner in 2005, the company boasted of a great plan to target its “preferred audience.” That preferred audience saw their lawns and driveways and walkways fill up with Washington Examiners that they never asked for. Some grabbed their papers and read them. Others had no use for the thing and complained, requesting stoppage. In many cases, however, the papers kept dropping.

The “preferred audience,” located in neighborhoods with rich and young people, wasn’t built to last. In declaring a new focus on national politics, the Washington Examiner is following a decades-old tradition among local publications: trying to squeeze in on the once-seemingly-bottomless Washington issue advocacy market.

According to two sources, McKibben of Clarity Media told staffers assembled at a meeting today to announce the changes that the existing publications in this space — such as Politico, National Journal, The Hill, CQ Roll Call and others — tilt as a group to the left. There’s a niche on the right, he argued, according to the sources.

A word of advice to McKibben and his fellow strategizers: Be prepared to scratch and claw and scratch and claw. Because there are competitors, including Politico, National Journal, The Hill, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Real Clear Politics, TPM, The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, CQ Roll Call, the Weekly Standard. And many others.

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