The Demise of the Washington News Bureau

When the Washington-based Newhouse News Service announced last month it would shut down after Election Day, the Associated Press described it as a "supplemental wire service," a technically correct term that nevertheless conjured up images of something journalistically superfluous, like Sunday-newspaper advertising supplements. In fact, not so long ago, Newhouse's output was a great and diverse read. NNS was a national platform for the Newhouse newspaper chain. It was the home for a dozen individual papers' Washington correspondents, who produced often deep district-by-district coverage of Congress and federal agencies. A separate staff of national reporters wrote stories exploring the fault lines of the American political discussion, including race, religion, and economics -- an experiment in reinventing Washington coverage, or at least intended to give it a good tweak.

Newhouse's demise is, of course, part of the terrible implosion underway in the newspaper business, and it shows how the depth and breadth of Washington coverage is shrinking as newspapers focus dwindling resources on local news. Hardly a week goes by without some regional newspaper announcing the layoff or recall of its Washington correspondent, and those covering national beats are similarly endangered. Just yesterday, The San Diego Union-Tribune, which is up for sale, announced it would shutter its four-person Washington bureau on Nov. 30. Papers in San Francisco, San Diego, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Toledo, Houston, Salt Lake City, Montana, Wyoming, and Maine have all cut back or eliminated Washington coverage in the past two years. Reporters for the Tribune Company papers are fretting over possible additional cuts to their communal Washington bureau as owner Sam Zell wields the knife. I empathize. I worked for Newhouse as a correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune Washington bureau for more than a decade before taking a buyout in 2006. I have many friends among the current and former staff there and at other newspaper bureaus.

As we approach the end of the Bush 43 era, the federal government is more opaque and arguably more mistrusted than at any recent time. Just from the standpoint of brute journalistic force, multiple layoffs mean fewer knowledgeable eyes on the day-to-day business of Congress and the federal government, so more political and bureaucratic shenanigans will go unnoticed -- a win for opacity. There are some promising alternatives emerging but not -- yet anyway -- at the rate at which newspapers are laying off reporters.

But the closing of the Newhouse News Service is also a cautionary tale about the backwardness of Washington journalism in the Internet age. Newhouse had the right idea: Do something different with the Washington bureau. But it was never the kind of "different" that really would have had an impact on a determinedly old-fashioned business.

The Newhouse family's Advance Publications, best known as the proprietor of the Conde Nast magazine empire, owns 26 daily newspapers (the largest are the Newark Star Ledger, the Portland Oregonian, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Times-Picayune). The news service's Washington bureau structure, an office staffed with editors and regional and national correspondents, follows a decades-old industry model. The Tribune, McClatchy, Hearst, Gannett, and Scripps Howard chains all do something similar.

This arrangement can work well. The McClatchy Washington bureau's skeptical prewar reporting on Iraq got it right when most everyone else got it wrong, and continues to be a smart alternative to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other big media covering Washington. But Washington bureaus were often as much about prestige as journalism, and all those newspaper bureaus have also meant pointless redundancies. Did every newspaper chain – and sometimes, multiple papers within single chains – really need its own White House correspondent?

In 1990, Newhouse decided to shake things up. It hired Deborah Howell, then-editor of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press (and now The Washington Post ombudsman). Howell, known for her dynamic, peppery personality, abandoned the conventional approach. Instead, she created a suite of national beats covering important topics – subjects likely to start fights at dinner parties, but not covered especially well: race, religion, family issues, sex and gender, and national politics, among others.

The result was a refreshing stream of interesting, often provocative journalism. For example, my friend Jonathan Tilove's reporting on race and ethnicity was unmatched in a newspaper industry rattled by charges of liberal bias on the one hand and insufficient attention to diversity on the other. During the 2008 primary season, Tilove smartly analyzed the racial disparities between the Clinton and Obama vote totals, showing Obama's relative weakness among white voters was due more to social factors than to race. (Tilove is now working for The Times-Picayune.) The bureau was also a lively and interesting place to work; Howell even brought along conservative humor columnist James Lileks, who later decamped to the blogosphere and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Washington journalism was sorely in need of reinvention, and still is. Newspapers are a key mediator between Washington and the rest of the nation, translating the often-impenetrable doings of the U.S. government into plain English. (Washington has no shortage of excellent alternatives, including the multiple sites of the National Journal and Congressional Quarterly, and the two Capitol Hill papers, The Hill and Roll Call. But these are aimed at insiders.)

The most valuable traditional D.C. journalism is the daily and weekly coverage of Congress by reporters who know individual members and their staffs, go to hearings, and develop detailed knowledge of their issue terrains. This is an instrument of accountability and understanding. And it can't really be done remotely, without prowling the hallways of Capitol Hill, chatting people up in elevators -- though papers that shutter their bureaus usually say they're going to try. Without coverage of individual members and local issues, the federal government seems -- is -- more distant and abstract. And when nobody's watching, members of Congress and bureaucrats get away with more questionable stuff.

This kind of coverage is also the jumping-off point for serious digging, as when correspondents for the Copley News Service and The San Diego Union-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the federal-contract shenanigans of Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, since jailed after pleading guilty to bribery. The two reporters on point, Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer, later took buyouts. Then came this week's announcement that their bureau was shutting down. Bureau chief George Condon, who worked the Cunningham story, will also take a buyout.

But over the past generation, two big trends have all but doomed the mainstream media's stake in Washington. Newspapers steadily lost touch with the interests of their dwindling pool of readers, as evidenced by cratering circulation. And Washington changed. The faux-objective style of the traditional newspaper is increasingly useless in a political landscape in which spin has leeched from campaigns into every aspect of politics and policy. The result: the prestige beats in Washington -- campaigns and the White House -- are increasingly detached from reality. The coverage tends to be impressionistic and insidery, a weird mash-up of Maureen Dowd, Karl Rove, Drudge, and cable news. And it has almost nothing to do with the day-to-day concerns of most people or the functioning of government itself.

Unfortunately, Newhouse's innovations, intelligent as they were, were both too modest and too cautious to make much of a difference against the tsunamis engulfing the news business. The bureau's content won some awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for photography, but garnered only modest attention in Washington and even within the Newhouse chain itself. The bureau's customers were mostly small and medium-sized newspapers with limited space and appetite for national stories; even though they were paying for it, it was sometimes a struggle to get them to print and play up Newhouse content. Meanwhile, aside from scoops coming from individual papers that moved on its wire, Newhouse rarely broke news itself, nor did it do many in-depth investigations -- the kinds of things most likely to capture an audience and win respect in the journalism community.

Of course, those problems were only tangential to the collapse of NNS. The experiment never really had a chance. When newspapers had lots of money, they spent it in conventional ways -- they hired more people and did more ambitious stories. But they didn't invest in new technology, new forms. They didn't take a step back and look at what had gone wrong with Washington journalism. They didn't examine the best ways to reach readers. And now readers are paying for that flat-footedness.

As advertising revenues and circulation dropped, the money that sustained all but local coverage began to dry up. Once considered essential, D.C. bureaus became a luxury. Both nuts-and-bolts reporting and innovation were hit hard. So it wasn't a surprise when, after Howell's retirement in 2005, Newhouse handed her successor Linda Fibich the task of dismantling the bureau. The company offered buyouts to the national staff, which dropped from 10 down to handful. Now, the papers must decide whether to recall their Washington correspondents, buy them out, or pay the freight to keep them in place. So far, we know The Times-Picayune plans to maintain two Washington reporters (post-Katrina New Orleans is now so dependent on various forms of federal support that this is an eminently practical decision). The Harrisburg Patriot-News, meanwhile, is pulling out.

Of course, one reason newspapers are shrinking is because they have lost their monopoly on information. The White House penchant for secrecy notwithstanding, thanks to the Internet there's now more raw information about the federal government available than ever -- databases, testimony, studies, graphs, photos. Washington, meanwhile, is a magnet for journalists and bloggers, and technology offers an expanding array of media to cover it. And new enterprises, most with an ideological kick of some kind, have started to fill the void vacated by newspapers. The Washington Independent aggregates content from alt-weeklies with its own Washington reportage -- including former Newhouse reporter Mary Kane. The Media Consortium (of which the Prospect is a part) pools the resources of progressive publications to fund reportage. Mother Jones opened a robust Washington bureau last year. And of course there's the TPM empire's detailed investigative reporting on congressional scandals, campaigns, and the U.S. attorney firings. The Politico has created a niche site that reaches for a broad audience. What these lack, of course, is the tight local focus of the traditional Washington bureau, and its feedback link between community, Congress, and the federal bureaucracy.

If the ever-expanding availability of information and tools for interpreting it gets more people to pay attention to government -- and the government to pay attention to them and their concerns -- that's great. But Washington is a very complicated machine. To really understand it, you need people who can make sense of the patterns in the information it generates.