New York Times Bemoans Shrinking Washington Newspaper Coverage


As newspapers frantically try to stave off bankruptcy by throwing every cost they can over the side, Washington DC bureaus are shrinking.  Like most changes to the newspaper industry, this change is presented by the newspaper industry as unambiguously bad.

It isn’t. For the most part it’s just change.

The idea that 40 small city papers should have large Washington staffs covering national and international news is ridiculous: three or four would (and will) suffice. The former staffing was paid for by a business model that is rapidly disintegrating, and it was always a “nice to have” not a “must have.”

As most newspapers cut back in Washington, moreover, electronic news businesses like Politico and Bloomberg, and niche publications like industry- and issue-targeted web sites, grow. The growth in reporters at these publications do not offset the losses at older newspapers, but, again, the vast majority of the work these reporters did was duplicative.

One area where coverage may actually suffer is that of the Washington-based activities of state senators and Congress-people: New Yorkers may not care much about how much pork, say, Wayne Allard of Colorado is stuffing into the latest bill, but folks in Aspen might (might–although if it is really tasty pork, we expect Wayne himself will rush to tell them about it). 

Even this lament, however, is misplaced: If there is truly a need or hunger for news about the Washington-based activities of local representatives, it can and will be filled by Politico or some other organisation that has some economies of scale.  Then local newspapers can reprint or aggregate it.

Put differently, the folks who care most about the shrinking Washington newspaper corps work for newspapers.  For everyone else, life will go on.

The New York Times: The year was 2000, and Cox Newspapers had about 30 people in Washington to cover the new Bush administration.

Eight years later, a similar transformation is under way, the stakes heightened by two foreign wars and the worst economic collapse in decades, but Cox will not be there to cover it. Cox, the publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Austin American-Statesman and 15 other papers, announced this month that its Washington bureau would simply close its doors on April 1.

Cox is not alone. Another major chain, Advance Publications, owner of The Star-Ledger of Newark, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and other papers, just closed a Washington bureau that had more than 20 people.

Like a number of smaller papers, The San Diego Union-Tribune recently shuttered its bureau, which had four people at the end. Three years ago, the parent company, Copley Press, had an 11-person bureau in Washington, but it has since sold most of its papers.

Those that remain have cut back drastically on Washington coverage, eliminating hundreds of journalists’ jobs at a time when the federal government — and journalistic oversight of it — matters more than ever. Television and radio operations in Washington are shrinking, too, although not as sharply.

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