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Shrinking Bureaus: As Local Coverage Goes—and It’s Going—So Goes the Post
When news broke that the Washington Post was closing its suburban bureaus, Marcus Brauchli promised coverage wouldn't be lost, but local coverage has been gone for some time now By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published September 2, 2011

Post watchers are chewing over the decision of Washington Post officials to close suburban bureaus, trying to figure out the true impact on local coverage and implications for the newspaper’s future.

“We take them at their word,” said reporter and union leader Fred Kunkle, “but we’re worried this means we won’t be committed to aggressively covering the region.”

“I hope this is truly not a retrenchment,” said Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton.

The truth is that the Post quit aggressively covering the Washington region years ago, perhaps as early as 2000. And executive editor Marcus Brauchli’s surrender to the business side’s pressure to close bureaus is beyond retrenchment—it’s a retreat.

I agree with Pexton and every street reporter that “being there” and “showing up” produce the best journalism. Reporters who live where they report, walk the streets, eat at the restaurants, endure the commutes, and see public officials during the course of the day get the best stories. Staying in the office strapped to a desk and a computer produces bloodless, second-rate journalism.

So the closing of bureaus in Rockville and Upper Marlboro, Fairfax and Leesburg will make for denatured journalism, period.

But there’s a cascade of half-truths and worrisome signs embedded in the decision to shrink local bureaus except for the capital bureaus in Richmond and Annapolis.

Let’s start with Post Company chairman Don Graham. Graham no longer is Post publisher, but as Post Company chairman he does have ultimate control over the iconic newspaper. By allowing the bureaus to close, Graham puts the lie to his perennial pronouncements that the Post is above all a local newspaper.

Here’s another reason to doubt the statement in Brauchli’s memo that closing bureaus “will have no adverse impact on our coverage of the region.” When Brauchli closed Post national bureaus in California, New York, and Chicago, he promised no loss of coverage—any Post reader can tell you national coverage has suffered. “That’s gone,” says a Post reporter.

“We are maintaining staffing levels in the suburbs,” Brauchli’s memo said. But word in the newsroom is that Prince William County reporter Jennifer Buske and Alexandria correspondent Christy Goodman might be gone. The paper’s experiment with bloggers has not worked out, and many are being cut, according to union sources.

Anyone who’s read the paper for more than five years knows suburban coverage has declined. Closing the bureaus is like razing the barn after the cows have left.

Tamara Jones worked in the Fairfax bureau in the 1990s when it was staffed up with reporters.

“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “We were a tight bureau”—it included Peter Baker, Patti Davis, Marylou Tousignant, and others—“who would usually order in food and eat together in our conference room everyday. There were no editors/supervisors in the bureau, and everyone worked their asses off.”

Sure, reporters can file from their living rooms or the local Starbucks, but the journalism suffers.

“They’re giving up more than their leases with this sad move,” says Jones, who took a buyout and has gone on to a successful freelance writing career. “They’re losing a big piece of the paper’s soul and a perspective they won’t be able to replicate. Turning bureau reporters into mobile newsbots isn’t the same. Bureaus are a unique mix of experience, ages, backgrounds/filters, and interests, and reporters get a lot just bouncing things off each other, et cetera.”

The question left for Post reporters and editors is this: Given the gradual but constant reduction in the news-gathering side, what, if anything, are Brauchli and the Post leadership doing to improve the product and enhance the brand?

Closing bureaus is not the answer.

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