Death of the Regional Newspaper Bureau in Washington

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Over the years that I have been in Washington, many of the finest, most sophisticated and most dogged journalists I have known have been reporters in small newspaper bureaus, who have seen it as their mission to make sure that the politicians elected to represent their readers back home stay honest. This story by Jennifer Dorroh in AJR points to a trend in our business that should worry everyone:

“These days, all the major bureaus have space they’re renting out. We’ve all become landlords looking for subtenants,” says Condon, who was bureau chief when he accepted a buyout from the company, which closed the bureau after the presidential election.

“The real tragedy is that as more newspapers cut back, you’re not going to have anybody watching the congressional delegation,” he says. “In our case, we’re sure that there’s a certain former congressman who’s sitting in prison in Arizona who has got to be saying to himself, ‘Why didn’t Copley do this two years ago?’ Because he’d still be in Congress and he’d still be drawing millions in bribes.” (See Drop Cap, April/May 2006.)

“Nobody else would’ve gotten Duke Cunningham. USA Today, AP, New York Times, none of them would devote resources to a backbench, local San Diego congressman in that kind of detail,” he says. “It has to be the local paper.”

As newspapers grapple with the ever-growing pressure to cut costs, more and more of them come to view Washington bureaus as luxuries they simply cannot afford. During the last three years, newspapers – including those in San Diego, Orlando, Los Angeles, Toledo, San Francisco, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Denver, Newark and St. Louis – have eliminated more than 40 Washington regional reporter positions through layoffs, buyouts or attrition. These were journalists who followed not the splashy national stories but their readers’ parochial interests in Washington. In November alone, Copley and Newhouse News Service shuttered their Washington bureaus, and Small Newspapers eliminated the position of Edward Felker, its lone Washington reporter, who covered six senators and seven House members from Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.