As Mainstream Exits D.C., Niche Media Tide Rises
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; Page C01
The growing exodus of mainstream reporters from the nation's capital has ceded much of the turf to a new, more specialized kind of journalism.
Just as newspaper, magazine and television bureaus here are shrinking or shutting down at the dawn of the Obama administration, high-priced newsletters and trade publications are filling the breach. Climate Wire, an online newsletter launched last year, now has more Washington staffers -- 10 -- than Hearst Newspapers.
"This dramatically changes what gets covered and how," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which surveys the new landscape in a report released yesterday. "As the government is getting bigger and playing a larger role in our lives in an activist era, there are fewer reporters monitoring that on behalf of the general public.
"The niche media cover trees, not forests. . . . They're generally not involved in watchdog, exposé journalism that by its very existence is a check on malfeasance."
Thirty-two of the nation's newspapers, representing 23 states, had their own Washington bureaus last year -- fewer than half the number of the mid-1980s. The Newhouse and Copley chains closed their D.C. bureaus last year, and Cox is shutting its down in April. Time and Newsweek have 14 and 20 staffers here, respectively, a decline of more than half during the same period. The three broadcast networks had 51 journalists in Washington early last year -- down from 110 in 1985 -- and that was before the latest cutbacks.
Dean Baquet, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times -- which, along with the Wall Street Journal, has maintained the general size of its office here -- said in an interview with the group that the trend is bad for democracy: "It concentrates knowledge in the hands of those who want to influence votes. It means the lobbyist knows more about Senator [Richard] Shelby than the people of Alabama."
The growth has been elsewhere, among publications with such names as Energy Trader, Government Executive and Food Chemical News. Since 1986, the number of newsletters with Washington staff has risen 61 percent, to 223, and the number of trade publications is up 24 percent, to 214.
"The 'balance of information' has been tilted away from voters along Main Street thousands of miles away to issue-based groups that jostle for influence daily in the corridors of power," the report says.
Congressional Quarterly, which includes such publications as CQ Budget Tracker and CQ Senate Watch, has an editorial staff of about 165 -- more than the number of Hill-accredited reporters for The Washington Post or Associated Press, the report says. But CQ recently put itself up for sale.
Some new organizations, such as Politico, have a broader appeal. Bloomberg News, which had no presence on Capitol Hill in the 1980s, had 112 accredited staffers last year. National Public Radio's Washington staff ballooned from 267 in 2000 to more than 400 last year. But NPR recently cut 64 jobs.
Foreign media organizations have also been expanding their Washington presence. The BBC's staff of 50 is one-third larger than four years ago. Al-Jazeera has 105. Overall, the report says, 796 media outlets from 113 countries have set up shop here, compared with 507 outlets from 79 countries in 1994. But though many serve large audiences back home, foreign journalists generally lack the access to break stories.
Beat reporting has taken a beating, with the number of mainstream newspapers and wire services covering the Pentagon full time dropping from 21 to 12 since 2001, and from 15 to 10 at the State Department. But the greatest impact of the Old Media erosion is the shrinking attention to local congressional delegations, and legislation and regulation that affects certain states and communities.
The once-mighty Los Angeles Times bureau has merged with that of parent company Tribune, which also provides coverage for the Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant and other papers. Newsday, which had 15 reporters here when George W. Bush took office, now has one. Salt Lake's Deseret News and Maine's Portland Press-Herald have left town.
Salt Lake City Tribune correspondent Thomas Burr, who heads the Regional Reporters Association, told the group: "We sometimes joke that we're becoming an endangered species."