Reporter Jerry Hagstrom was also covering the House that day. But the kerfuffle around Hicks was the last thing on his mind. At the same time as the Hicks drama was playing out, Hagstrom was sitting patiently in a nearby building, covering a nearly four-hour Ways and Means Committee hearing with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Hagstrom’s readers don’t turn to him for news about Hope Hicks. They do, however, need to know what Lighthizer says about international markets for U.S. agricultural products. A former political reporter, Hagstrom switched to the ag beat in the late 1990s because he was frustrated with the ephemeral nature of campaigns and elections. “The negative side about covering politics,” he told me, “is that at the end of a political season, you don’t really care about any of your stories anymore because it’s been about races that have been won and lost.” Now, after 20-plus years covering the agriculture industry for various publications, he runs his own ag-focused news outlet, the Hagstrom Report, a subscription newsletter read by agency officials, policymakers, lobbyists and consultants. It’s not fancy, but it’s not cheap either: A private-sector subscription costs $1,200 per year for a five-person license. (It’s more affordable for the public sector at $499.)
Hagstrom is passionate about all facets of agriculture — raving to me about the history of food art and his trip to a lobbyist’s alpaca farm — and he stands at the top of his field. Yet most people will never read his work, or even know that it exists. And he is not alone. On Capitol Hill, you will of course find reporters from places like The Washington Post and Politico covering intraparty squabbles, budget negotiations and health-care policy — but you’ll also come across plenty of trade reporters who, like Hagstrom, are focused on narrower topics: medical devices, water subsidies, sports gambling laws, broadcast spectrum auctions. They work for publications with names like Aviation Week, Inside Mortgage Finance, American Shipper and Gold Newsletter.
Twenty years ago, daily newspaper staff covering the Hill outnumbered trade reporters by more than two to one. But today, with niche publications having proliferated online and newspapers having closed Washington bureaus or gone out of business, specialty reporters actually outnumber those working for daily broadsheets, according to the Pew Research Center. “While Beltway journalism is often categorized as this one monolithic thing, the reality is there’s a lot of different types of journalists doing their own brand of work,” says Nikki Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Trade publications, which cater specifically to business people or government officials, are often more financially viable these days than writing for a general audience — because unlike average readers, those who want trade news are willing to pay for it. Sometimes, this can lead trade reporters in laughably specific directions: Michael Doyle, now a reporter for an online energy and environment news publication called E&E News, told me he once wrote a few pieces for Onion World, a magazine covering the onion industry (not a global edition of the satirical newspaper the Onion).
Doyle covers the Interior Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and endangered-species regulations for E&E News. He landed there in 2017 after taking a buyout from McClatchy newspapers, where he covered California and legal affairs out of the chain’s D.C. bureau. Doyle describes his current audience as smaller than his previous one, but more devoted. “The people we write about ... the ecosystem that we mingle in, the world of Capitol Hill, executive agencies, K Street, academia, think tanks, corporate America — they know us and respect us,” he says.
Mainstream news organizations in search of new revenue streams have also moved into specialized coverage and research. In 2017, Digiday reported that Politico Pro — Politico’s subscription-based news and intelligence service — had 20,000 paying subscribers and accounted for half of Politico’s total revenue. In 2011, Bloomberg bought the Bureau of National Affairs, a trade publisher, and rebranded it as Bloomberg BNA; Business Insider launched Business Insider Intelligence in 2012.
When industry is the primary audience, the priorities for reporters can be different from those of mainstream journalists. Ferdous Al-Faruque, who goes by Danny, works for Medtech Insight, an industry trade outlet published by the British company Informa. “A large part of our audience are medical device companies. So their regulatory officers, their CEOs [and] various executives will read our stuff in order to know what is FDA thinking, what is FDA doing, how does this impact our business,” he told me. “The way I always try to remember this is if my articles are not, in some way, making money for the medical device industry, I’m not doing my job because what I write needs to somehow fill their business strategy.” He stressed, though, that the approach doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage. “Even though we might lose a major client because they don’t like what we write … we have to do it because it’s not about them,” he says. “It’s about our credibility.”
Some observers argue that the growing ranks of the trade press do contribute, albeit indirectly, to broader accountability journalism. At an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August, Usher and her colleague Yee Man Margaret Ng presented their research on social-media conversations between trade journalists in D.C. “What these trade folks are doing, especially on Twitter, is raising [the] alarm when [an] alarm needs to be raised,” Usher told me. “Or they’re covering something in a way that allows more mainstream ... journalists to basically survey a sector they would otherwise not pay attention to.”
Hagstrom, who grew up on his father’s farm in Wilton, N.D., and whose grandparents were homesteaders, describes his audience as more likely to be people who represent farmers, rather than farmers themselves. He finds that problematic, given how little coverage of agriculture there is in daily newspapers now.
“It used to the Minneapolis [Star] Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — these were major sources of our agricultural news. But so many of these publications no longer have Washington bureaus or reporters,” Hagstrom says. “That’s good for me for business. ... But I don’t think it’s good for the general public because it costs more to get information from me.”
Scott Nover is a writer in Washington.