Retreating from the Capital
Monday, August 18, 2008; 9:55 AM
Washington, which likes to think of itself as the indispensable city for high-stakes journalism, is losing its luster.
A full-blown withdrawal is underway, with newspaper companies reducing their troops here or pulling them out altogether.
"The folks back home see a Washington bureau as a luxury," says Bill Walsh, a former correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who recently left journalism. "They get plenty of copy from the wires to fill up their pages. I don't know that there's a real understanding of Washington."
The latest to pull the plug is the Newhouse News Service, which employs 11 reporters. Linda Fibich, the bureau chief, says the individual Newhouse papers, from Newark to New Orleans, will have to decide whether to pay for their own correspondents to be stationed in the capital.
"They know the issues, they know the characters," Fibich says. "I've watched people parachute into Washington, and they just don't have the same facility." Regional reporters, she says, "get embedded in Washington, just as reporters develop sources at City Hall or the school board. You go beyond stenography into enterprise."
The reason for this pullback is hardly a mystery. Newspapers are under fierce financial pressure, shrinking their staffs as advertising revenue plunges. Barely a day goes by without another grim announcement: The San Francisco Chronicle, offering buyouts to 125 journalists. The Cincinnati Enquirer, looking to cut 50. Florida's Sarasota Herald-Tribune, slicing its staff by a third in two years. Newhouse's Newark Star-Ledger, saying it will sell the paper unless the staff is cut by 20 percent.
In this climate, more editors are concluding that they should put all their eggs in the local-news basket.
But something is being lost. Regional reporting is a specialty that lacks the glamour of following the president around the world or popping off on cable television, but it's not a matter of journalistic vanity. Its practitioners follow the local congressional delegation and bird-dog federal agencies over matters important to their readers. Without them, there's a sizable gap between the national political writers and the local scribes back home.
David Lightman was the Hartford Courant's Washington bureau chief for 23 years, but in recent years the staff shrank from five to just him. Gone were the reporters who focused on defense and health-care issues, two vital areas for Connecticut. "The coverage obviously suffered. After '04 we never went to the White House anymore," says Lightman, who left last fall to join McClatchy Newspapers.
Maine's Portland Press Herald hired Jonathan Kaplan to be its Washington correspondent in December. His job was eliminated last month, and the Press Herald has put itself up for sale amid dire warnings about the company's future.
"I was crushed . . . . I will never look at someone who has lost his job the same way," Kaplan says. He says his brief tenure convinced him that "if you can get around the jargon we all talk in and make clear why this matters, it will be read."
Chuck McCutcheon spent six years with Newhouse's Washington bureau, first as one of a dozen national correspondents; there are now three. "We didn't go to press conferences and cover the story of the day," he says. "We were all trying to do broader trend stories."