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Washington Reporters’ Mass Exodus

BY Megan Tady

If there were ever a time for a strong and sharp-toothed press corps to hound our lawmakers in Washington, it would be now.

There’s a problem with journalism when a newspaper lays off a reporter like Phil Dine.

For 20 years, Dine doggedly covered the labor beat for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, first from St. Louis, and then from the nation’s capital. His work was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize, and he has landed a laudatory list of awards, including first place for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. This year, Dine published his first book, State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence.

But even nearly swiping a Pulitzer couldn’t save Dine. Like the dozens of other reporters who have been pulled from their posts in D.C. as newspapers cut costs, Dine was laid off in November.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch once had the second-largest D.C. bureau of any Midwestern paper. Now, only one editor remains.

“Having a D.C. bureau is now seen as something extravagant, when it’s just the opposite; it’s basic,” Dine says. “More and more stuff is going to be happening [in D.C.], especially with an active administration, and fewer and fewer people will be covering it.”

If there were ever a time for a strong and sharp-toothed press corps to hound our lawmakers in Washington, it would be now. We’re in the thick of an economic recession that has Congress doling out taxpayer-funded bailouts to corporations, while workers are sacked in droves. We’re submerged in two wars that have no gentle ends in sight. And we’re watching the changing of the guard on Capitol Hill and in the White House, with parties and politicians making moves, vying for positions and extending quiet favors.

It’s startling, then to discover the dwindling number of journalists on the beat. Rather than an increase of journalists schlepping their laptops to Washington, there’s been a mass exodus.

Newspapers across the country have gouged their staffs in order to stave off unhappy Wall Street investors and prop up their profit margins. Foreign bureaus were the first to go. Then newspaper owners trimmed further, eliminating beat reporters, copyeditors and even top editor positions. Now media execs have set their sights on Washington, D.C., getting rid of the reporters who covered policy and politicians from a local angle.

According to the American Journalism Review, more than 40 Washington regional reporter positions have vanished over the past three years. These aren’t the journalists who tripped over each other to cover Hillary Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony or Michelle Obama’s inaugural outfits. They’re the ones who covered D.C. politics from a hometown perspective.

In November, Copley and Newhouse News Service closed their Washington bureaus, and the Small Newspapers Group laid off its only Washington reporter, who had been responsible for covering six senators and seven House members from Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.

“It’s the chains and the demand for immediate profit to satisfy stockholders,” Dine says. “Some papers are bleeding money, but some papers are making money. They’re just not making money fast enough to satisfy somebody. A lot of newspapers are panicking, and they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that quality doesn’t really matter, and they can cut, cut, cut.”

And all of this cutting is having devastating effects. Communities no longer have scouts watching out for their best interests in the heart of the political establishment. With fewer reporters sending stories back home about their communities’ elected officials, holding those politicians accountable becomes increasingly difficult. With fewer reporters following the trail of corporate lobbyists, holding corporations accountable becomes nearly impossible.

“How does the local angle in Washington get covered?” asks Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Is anybody watching the legislative delegations? Is anyone scrutinizing what’s happening on the Hill and its implications for a city or state or community?”

Simply relying on the major papers and wire services for Washington stories, or flying journalists into the capital for major events, doesn’t allow reporters to uncover important–and often hidden–stories.

“It’s hard to parachute people in to cover a big event and really report on what’s going on behind the scenes, how the system is working and not working,” Jurkowitz says. “You need a regular presence. You need reporters in the building, and enduring commitment and presence to turn those stories over.”

The absence of regional reporters has a trickle-down effect, and public advocacy organizations that make their living watch-dogging the government are hampered when fewer reporters are on the beat.

“A number of my ‘regulars’ don’t call anymore, because they’re not in the news business anymore,” Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks money in politics. “With members of Congress, you have 535 separate haystacks. Under each one there might be a needle, there might be a whole bunch of needles or there might be no needles at all. Regional reporters are the ones who take the time to hunt around in those haystacks, and they uncover a lot of good stories as a result.”

As media companies shutter foreign bureaus and shear staff, they’re falling to a “more local news” approach. But as Dine suggests, local news isn’t necessarily defined by where it happens, but by how it impacts local people.

“A traffic accident can happen in the middle of your city, which is essentially local,” Dine said. “But it’s no more local than the decisions that your congressmen are making that are going to affect farmers or business people in your city.”

Of course, not all regional reporters in Washington were serving the public interest before this recent exodus. The crisis in journalism began long before media companies declared an emergency, with sensationalistic and cheap content crowding out quality reporting. It’s certainly been a long time since we’ve had a snarling press corps prowling Congress, if we ever did.

Still, the latest disappearance of regional reporters and their local stories is reverberating across the country.

“Even when there were more of them on the job, we know there was funny business that didn’t see the light of day–not every politician, lobbyist or industry is going to get scrutiny–but at least there were enough instances of public embarrassment and occasionally prosecution, as a result of media coverage, to keep lawmakers mostly in line,” Ritsch says.

And with no one watching, it looks like this line just got a lot easier to cross.

Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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