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On Capitol Hill, Meeting Less of the Press

By Jonathan E. Kaplan
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rep. Tom Allen, a Maine Democrat, plans to attend his party's convention in Denver next week and is already airing television advertisements in his uphill battle to unseat Sen. Susan Collins come November. He's working hard. But if Maine voters are going to hear what he's doing, and hear what he thinks Collins isn't doing in Washington, he'll have to work even harder.

Incumbents already get most of the breaks, with high name recognition and deep cash reserves. But now there's an even stronger protection program for U.S. representatives and senators: the demise of regional reporters who keep tabs on what those veteran officeholders actually do for the constituents who keep returning them to power.

We're the men and women who cover politics in Washington for cities such as Portland, Me., or Salt Lake City or Harrisburg, Pa. We are these places' eyes and ears in the nation's capital -- and we're disappearing fast.

The layoffs and cutbacks at newspapers and wire services this summer have affected every area in the country. My former employer, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, reduced its reporting and editing staff through four rounds of layoffs and buyouts. The Blethen family, which has owned the paper for 10 years, has put it up for sale.

Since the newspaper closed its Washington bureau on July 1, it has tried to cover the activities of Maine's congressional delegation in Washington from Maine. While that's bad news for my career, it could be worse news for democracy.

Maine's largest newspaper hired me in December after I spent five years as a reporter at the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. During the interview process, I talked with the editors about the presidential race and Maine's 2008 Senate contest, as well as about how proud they were that they had a bureau in Washington. They never implied that the lone Maine reporter's seat in the Capitol was in jeopardy of growing cold.

On June 23, I received an e-mail accidentally sent from the paper's human resources department, asking the newspaper's top editors when they were going to tell me that "my services would not any longer be needed." Three days later, my editor informed me over the phone that the paper had decided to close its bureaus in Washington and Augusta, the state capital.

These cost-cutting measures -- necessary, editor in chief said, given the current economic climate -- ended five decades of tradition. That's how long, give or take, the newspaper has had a reporter at the desk in the Capitol's Senate Daily Press Gallery. Now I was told to ship the desk's contents to Portland. At least the paper paid for the postage.

I'm still in the early stages of grief, moving between denial and anger. Charles Babington, a veteran political reporter who formerly worked for The Washington Post and is now with the Associated Press, once told me that the most fun he ever had reporting was his early stint covering Washington and the conservative stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms for the Raleigh News & Observer. I know what he meant.

Although it took some time for me to adjust from writing for the Hill -- essentially a trade paper with an audience of 535 members of Congress -- to writing for a general-interest newspaper with a circulation of 70,000 during the week and more on Sundays, I liked it. During the Maine Democratic caucuses on Feb. 10, I had a sit-down interview with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Obama campaign kept close tabs on my reporting. I spent two days before the caucuses covering visits from surrogates for both campaigns, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and former president Bill Clinton.

In addition, I was one of a handful of reporters and bloggers in the state who were tracking the Senate race between Collins and Allen. Collins has maintained a lead in public polls, but operatives in both parties are watching to see whether Sen. Barack Obama will unleash a Democratic wave that could sweep away Collins.

I know the lawmakers didn't always like what I wrote, whether it was about their names popping up in a former senator's tell-all book or about Allen's charges that Collins, as chairperson of a Senate oversight committee, did not do enough to keep tabs on government contractor waste and fraud in Iraq.

Nevertheless, several of the state's most senior officials were disappointed when I told them what the newspaper had planned. A cynic could argue that they were simply feigning sympathy, but I don't think so. These are hard times. I think Maine's elected officials care about the civic service the Fourth Estate performs. A newspaper's reporting, editorials and letters to the editor let lawmakers know what people are thinking without taking expensive, impersonal polls. There's self-interest too: The lawmakers believe that they are doing good work and want it publicized back home.

The biggest losers in these cutbacks, of course, are the citizens of Maine and the other states where newspapers have closed their Washington bureaus. My main gripe is that the loss of regional reporters just gives one more advantage to incumbents seeking reelection. Even in 2006, a year in which a Democratic tide swept Republicans out of office, 94 percent of incumbents in the House were reelected, as were 79 percent of those in the Senate, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan Web site that keeps track of election spending and data.

The downsizing in mainstream newspapers does not, of course, spell disaster for the Constitution. We reporters, as much as we might want to think otherwise, are not the last line of defense against the misuse of government power in the republic. These days, people get their news from plenty of other sources, including television, radio and the Internet. So the problem isn't that all those press releases that lawmakers send out will go unchallenged, although they might go unread in standard newsprint.

But readers will miss some nuance simply because there's nobody in the Capitol. They won't know how Sen. Olympia Snowe's eyes light up when she recalls being selected as an intern for the state's Democratic governor in the summer of 1967, even though she considered herself a Republican. They'll probably never learn that, at a press conference in May, just minutes before a vote on a massive farm bill, Collins praised a provision in the measure to close the so-called Enron loophole. She then headed straight to the Senate floor and voted against the bill.

We regional reporters put readers in rooms like that and give them a voice. But we're disappearing fast, and it's not clear who can pick up the slack.

jonathanekaplan@gmail.com

Jonathan E. Kaplan, the former Washington correspondent for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, is now a freelance political reporter.

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