Every four years since 1973, The Washingtonian has picked the city’s 50 best and most influential journalists. The original list—heavy with regional-newspaper bureau chiefs and light on television reporters—bears little resemblance to the present-day world. Since 2005 alone, the media landscape has changed dramatically.
The creative destruction brought about by the rise of the Web has accelerated: Even in major cities such as Boston, daily newspapers are hanging by a thread. Hundreds if not thousands of Washington reporters have lost their jobs as local papers have pulled back on their DC coverage. The Washington Post has 300 fewer newsroom staffers than it did in 2005.
The last four years have seen a growing disconnect between daily beat reporters and a smaller class of “impact” reporters, whose bylines may appear less frequently but who move governments, policies, and news cycles when they do write. Politico.com has built one of the few successful new journalism models around being the first with every small tidbit of news—even if its reporters don’t always get it right at first—and is causing the Post leadership some indigestion in doing so. Using a business model that values links from Drudge and cable-news hits more than Pulitzers, Politico relies on its writers to blog constantly and eschews in-depth reporting. It aims for—and hits—the inside-the-Beltway gossip crowd who can never get enough.
On the other hand, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and Jane Mayer and Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker change the way readers see the world—even if the public sees their bylines only a handful of times a year. While beat reporting remains the heart of journalism, news-of-the-day scoops are increasingly irrelevant. Politico notwithstanding, the advent of an Internet-driven news cycle has made it matter less who beat whom to what story by ten minutes.
Looking for lasting impact? Check out journalism pieces such as the Post’s exposé about Walter Reed Army Medical Center by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, Mark Leibovich’s eviscerating New York Times Magazine profile of Chris Matthews, and virtually anything by Bob Woodward in the Post. Perhaps counterintuitively, long-form writing seems to matter more today than ever. Tom Friedman’s books have done more to shape the way business thinks about globalization—and more recently, “green” technology—than just about anything said by any corporate leader. They’ve established him as arguably Washington’s most powerful journalist.
This list, complied based on interviews with dozens of the Washington journalism establishment, is biased toward reporters who will shape our views of the Obama era. Sadly gone from the roster are a host of once-powerful correspondents for chains such as Knight Ridder and the Tribune Company, whose empires are melting away before our eyes. Underscoring that fall from grace, not a single reporter from a Tribune paper has made this list in 2009.
The list marks another milestone: Since 1973, only two reporters have made every iteration of it—David Broder and Bob Novak. That streak that comes to an end in 2009, as both men have effectively retired from day-to-day journalism. The baton is being passed to a different generation, one raised on blogs and schooled in Twitter, for whom the idea of an am-and-pm news cycle is as far removed from their reality as the telegraph.
This list includes only journalists who live in the Washington area, thereby excluding some very talented and influential writers such as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and Politico’s Ben Smith, both based in New York; People’s bureau chief, Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, a New Jersey resident whose portraits of Washington power players are read by millions; and the Post’s dwindling pool of foreign correspondents.
In alphabetical order, here are our picks for the best and most influential Washington reporters in 2009.
Mike Allen, Politico. The seemingly inexhaustible Allen writes all day, beginning with his early-morning must-read, Playbook, which is to the Obama administration what ABC’s The Note was to Washingtonians five years ago.
Marc Ambinder, Atlanti c. Thoughtful, well sourced, and unimpeachably fair, Ambinder, in his blog and magazine pieces, is the antithesis of the often-vapid cable-news talkfest.
Peter Baker, New York Times Magazine. Although he’s a Russia expert, Baker—who jumped from the Washington Post after his wife, Susan Glasser, was pushed from that paper—is a strong utility player, writing smartly on a range of topics.
Dan Balz, Washington Post. Still going, just like the Energizer Bunny, Balz continues to crisscross the country and churn out quick analysis that puts to shame many others who have more time.
Carl Cameron, Fox. Whatever you think of his network, players on both sides of the aisle trust “Campaign Carl” and know that his reporting is second to none.
Chris Cillizza, Washington Post. A blogger, vlogger, Twitterer, and reporter, Cillizza is the model of what the next generation of Washington reporter will look like.
Richard E. Cohen, National Journal. The unofficial dean of congressional correspondents—not to be confused with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen—offers an unparalleled depth of analysis and context to his coverage.
Helene Cooper, New York Times. After covering the State Department, Cooper finds herself newly prominent with a post covering the White House and a best-selling memoir, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood.
Candy Crowley, CNN. Few people in TV journalism are as respected, balanced, or hard-working as “Candy,” who seems to know most campaign developments before the campaigns do.
Jeanne Cummings, Politico. In a city of lobbyists and lawyers, Cummings, a Wall Street Journal veteran, is perhaps Washington’s best expert on the business of making policy.