Western papers drop D.C. reporters

  • In April, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid holds court with members of the press during a news briefing on Capitol Hill.

    Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Washington, D.C., office of the Salt Lake Tribune's Thomas Burr and Matt Canham resembles most newsrooms. A few pieces of art cling haphazardly to the walls; piles of paper spill from one reporter's cubicle. It feels busy, even if it's not nearly as lively as it was a few years ago, when 14 correspondents shared a bigger office, filing stories for papers out West. Today, Canham and Burr share this space on the ninth floor of the National Press Club with just four other reporters from Western newspapers. Together, they represent most of the region's remaining D.C. press corps.

The Tribune's leading competitor in Utah, the Deseret News, closed its bureau in 2008. The Denver Post, once the biggest of the bureaus from the West, is down to one correspondent from four. The Rocky Mountain News, once the Post's competitor, no longer exists. The Las Vegas Sun, Albuquerque Journal, Great Falls Tribune, Arizona Republic, Omaha World-Herald and Idaho Statesman all still maintain one-person bureaus. The Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Salt Lake Tribune are the last of the Western papers to keep two reporters trawling the halls of Congress and staking out press briefings at the Department of Interior.

"We don't have the competition we used to, and I miss it," says Burr, who has been on the beat for six years. Until recently, he was president of the Regional Reporters Association, which has shriveled from some 200 members to more like 70.

The decline of D.C. bureaus is not a new story; there's been a fair amount of hand-wringing over what staff cuts mean when big stories break and the press is needed to hold the government accountable. Given how much of the West is under federal control -- 70 percent of Utah, for example -- and how acutely debates over land, water and energy affect the region, one could argue that Western states have even more reason to want reporters in the capital.

Although the number of D.C. bureaus has fallen by half since the mid-'80s, the number of specialty papers and newsletters geared toward Washington insiders and industry types has increased by the same percentage. Energy & Environment Publishing, one of the biggest in the genre, has 45 reporters and editors, some of them expats from Western papers. Reporters still pack congressional galleries, says E&E energy reporter Mike Soraghan, formerly of the Denver Post -- they're just not writing for regional papers: "You look around at the room and it's like, where's this crisis in journalism?"

But it requires a pricey subscription to view most of these new publications' content, and the writing is aimed at an audience that wants agency and legislative minutiae, rather than a broader view of on-the-ground implications for the citizens back home. "The 'balance of information' has been tilted away from voters along Main Streets thousands of miles away to issue-based groups that jostle for influence daily in the corridors of power," the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism wrote in a recent report.

Writing for readers in the West requires an understanding of the issues at stake as well as of the complicated relationship between those states and the federal government, says Salt Lake Tribune managing editor Terry Orme. Even if the reporters aren't native Westerners, they're directly connected to the region through their profession. This is essential when it comes to covering issues like oil and gas development, or the nuanced and often emotional debates around designating wilderness areas or listing endangered species. And a wire service dispatch, from Reuters or the Associated Press, can't be counted on to provide the details desired by local readers.

A physical presence is also essential for understanding the processes and personalities involved. There are pieces that only a D.C. reporter can do, Orme says, citing Canham's 2009 feature on how the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance shifted its tactics to gain protections for red-rock wildlands under a Democratic administration and a more favorable Congress. Although many press conferences and hearings are webcast these days, that doesn't give reporters the opportunity to bypass flacks and canned press releases and buttonhole lawmakers or officials.

D.C. reporters can also give regional stories a national perspective. Suzanne Struglinski, who reported for the Deseret News until the bureau closed, remembers when six coal miners and three rescuers were killed at Crandall Canyon Mine in 2007. Utah reporters were on top of the local story, but it was Struglinksi who delved into the federal mine-safety issues the disaster raised.

But nothing drives reporters quite like the fear that someone else might tell the story first, or better. "It's the classic one-upmanship that reporters are all about," says M.E. Sprengelmeyer, who covered D.C. for the Rocky Mountain News. He fondly recalls the heated debates over the confirmation of George W. Bush's first secretary of Interior, Gale Norton. The competition between him and the Denver Post to turn out the best stories was "just feverish." And that's the rub. "When there's not as many people out here, things might get missed," says the Tribune's Burr. "I never want to miss anything; I hope that if I do somebody else catches it. But what if there's no one else there?"

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