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Can DC’s New Digital News Operations Replace the Once-Great Newspaper Bureaus?
Comments () | Published November 20, 2009
When Dan Froomkin surveyed the fresh digs where he would set up shop for Huffington Post’s larger Washington bureau three months ago, he realized its potential: rooftop party central.

“I grew up in Washington,” he tells me, “and I have never seen a view like this. You have to see it.”

The roof on the building on Pennsylvania Avenue is a block from the White House and it was the setting for a small gathering when the office opened. Last Friday Froomkin hosted another gathering of reporters and sources.

The mood was less festive in the building next door where Newsweek houses its DC bureau. The money-losing weekly, owned by the Washington Post Company, had just announced another round of layoffs. The Washington bureau didn’t take much of a hit but the bureau already had lost its swagger: Newsweek had moved to smaller quarters; reporters and editors had been asked to move from offices to cubicles.

“Yes,” says Newsweek bureau chief Jeff Bartholet, “we’re facing the same financial pressures afflicting other news outlets. But until now, anyway, we’ve tried to find savings in Washington by cutting back on travel and by moving into smaller offices to save on rent.”

There have been several sob stories about the death dance of the traditional Washington news bureau, including those of the news weeklies. Gone are the robust bureaus for the Los Angeles Times, Newhouse News, and other once-healthy news organizations. Digital media bureaus now are taking their places with as many reporters and plenty of swagger.

“I mourn the loss of those bureaus,” Froomkin says, “but there’s a lot of optimism, a lot of energy in the kind of Internet journalism we are doing.”

The new journalism is taking the shape of the old bureaus when it comes to beats. Froomkin has a staff of about ten, plus interns. Sam Stein, once an intern at Newsweek, covers the White House. Ryan Grim covers Congress. Arthur Delaney’s beat is money: budget, policy, fundraising.

“We’re not doing the stuff we can get on the wires,” says Froomkin, who came to Huffington Post after the Washington Post canceled his popular White House column on its web site. “We’re trying to do impact journalism.”    

Talking Points Memo, a political Web site based in New York, has had one person in Washington sharing space with other reporters. “We’re in the midst of an expansion,” founder Joshua Micah Marshall says. TPM has opened an office with a bureau chief David Kurtz and three reporters: Brian Beutler is the lead congressional reporter; Christina Bellatoni handles White House coverage; Evan McMorris-Santoro writes about Congress and other Washington issues.

I asked Marshall how his bureau differs from the “legacy” operations.

“In many ways they are very similar,” he says. “The real difference is we have an approach to reporting that is suited to a web-native news organization.”

That boils down to “a rapid series of updates,” he says.

In February the Pew Research Center detailed the changes in Washington reporting. “Collectively,” it concluded “the implications of these changes are considerable. For those who participate in the American democracy, 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.”

That may be true if you see only the loss of news services such as Copley and the closing of bureaus for iconic papers such as the Baltimore Sun. But the changes are less considerable and the threat to democracy not as dire once you factor in the growth in digital bureaus.

“The erosion is still much faster than the green shoots,” says Josh Marshall. “But we are growing.”

What’s definitely lost in the change from old school bureaus to web-based news operations is the coverage of congressmen in far-flung districts; they might not factor into the health care debate but could be steering contracts or sleeping with staffers. When Newhouse closed, Harrisburg and all of central Pennsylvania lost its window on Washington, a fate similar to the Hartford Courant’s loss of its bureau.

I asked Melinda Henneberger, editor of AOL’s Politics Daily, if she tried to cover regional issues on her Web site.

“No,” she said. “We’re trying to have a national reach.”

Perhaps its time to bring back States News Service.

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