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OmBlog
Posted at 05:51 PM ET, 09/01/2011

Post pulling back from suburbs?

The Post will downsize, or close, most of its regional bureaus in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs as leases expire in coming years on the rented offices in these local towns and county seats.

The Post’s bureaus in Richmond and Annapolis, which cover the state governments and legislatures in those states, will remain open, said PostLocal editor, Vernon Loeb.

But as office leases expire in Rockville, Fairfax, Largo, Alexandria/Arlington, Leesburg and Manassas, they will be evaluated for downsizing or closure, Loeb said. The first lease expires next year, and others come up in 2013 and beyond, he said.

Both Loeb and Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli stressed that this was not journalistic retrenchment or pullback from suburban coverage, or anything like that, but a way to save money on offices, many of them large, that have been kept for years, long past the time they were once full of local Post reporters. Fairfax, at one time, had a bureau with space big enough for 25 people, Loeb said.

Brauchli in a statement e-mailed to the newsroom, wrote: “This is about office space, not personnel or coverage. We are doing this because we have more space than we use in many places, not because we are retrenching. Indeed, we may decide in some cases to take smaller offices in the same communities.

“With the savings from ending unnecessarily expensive leases,” Brauchli continued, “we will invest in technology that will enable us to file from anywhere, at any time, to any platform.”

Loeb said he hopes to use the savings from the rents for new mobile technology, including video, which will allow reporters to file from throughout the region. He said he would have opposed the move if he did not think it was beneficial journalistically.

The number of reporters covering local stories will remain the same, Loeb added, and the administrative personnel in these bureaus will be retained to do some of the data collection, such as real estate transactions and the like, that must be done from county seats.

“Journalistically this is a good thing,” Loeb said, and it will allow reporters “to really get out there.”

Brauchli and Loeb put the closures and downsizing in the context of the Post covering the region differently than it once did. They emphasized that The Post has been re-investing in local coverage but in newer ways, trying to get at issues in a regional sense, and honing in on the topics that readers most care about, such as education.

All the major local school districts now have reporters detailed to them, Loeb noted, and local bloggers have been hired to do constant coverage of Virginia and Maryland: The State of NoVa by Tom Jackman and Rosenwald, Md. by Mike Rosenwald.

Both men also pointed to other initiatives in local coverage that show The Post’s commitment to the region.

“We’ve just launched On Faith Local, a supplement to our very successful On Faith site, focused on religion in this area,” noted Brauchli. “And we’ve started The Root DC.com, a terrific new site that’s covering the African-American community across the region.”

Ok, so what’s my take on this?

First the financial picture. The Post is still cutting costs, and will continue to do so. That’s just the reality. I hear persistent rumors, which I cannot confirm, of a target in the newsroom of another $2 million in cost cuts this year. Advertising revenue in the first six months of the year wasn’t what was expected, for most publications across the country, and so, too, for The Post.

I do understand that The Post is trying to cover the suburbs differently, looking at the larger regional picture, and focusing more on traffic, development, and education as the issues that readers really care about and less on the twists and turns of every county council confab.

But I was a local reporter for many years earlier in my career, both in Annapolis and Rockville, and in suburban Connecticut. To keep public officials accountable in local governments you have to be in their faces, constantly. They have to know that you are watching, all the time, everywhere. Without reporters whose sole jobs are to poke their noses into every corner of county and city government, accountability suffers, and the voters do too.

Some of the best stories I got as a local reporter were at 11:30 p.m. in the fading minutes of some interminable council meeting, where the guard of the officials was down, and they knew most people had gone home. Then they said something, or did something, that told you more about what was really going on in that jurisdiction than in all the hours that had gone before.

The world is different, and the world of journalism is different. With e-mail and Twitter and Facebook and smartphones, perhaps the days are gone when local residents, or county functionaries and elected officials, would drop by the bureau office to give a tip to a reporter. Maybe now it is all done wirelessly, or anonymously. Too bad.

Lots of companies don’t have offices anymore, it’s true. And an office doesn’t make a reporter great—just look at how Post foreign correspondents do their jobs in wartime. But physical presence means something. Knowing local officials, showing up and dropping in unannounced gets stories.

I hope this is truly not a retrenchment. But if it is, or if it just means that local reporters will be working out of their homes, or the local Starbucks, to save money, then this is a sad moment for The Post.

By  |  05:51 PM ET, 09/01/2011

 
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