Shrinking coverage

Massachusetts news outlets, with the exception of the Globe, have pulled out of Washington

In the last five years, Massachusetts newspapers have dramatically altered the way they cover—or don’t cover—the state’s congressional delegation in Washington.

Every Bay State newspaper except the Boston Globe has pulled out of Washington. The Globe, which is owned by the New York Times, has closed its foreign bureaus and demanded financial give-backs from its employees, but it continues to employ seven journalists in the nation’s capital because it believes that Washington coverage is of interest to readers in Massachusetts.

“The shuttles from Logan to National are packed all the time with lobbyists and officials and people from Harvard and scholars and scientists and biotech executives and lawyers, so there’s this gigantic nexus between Boston and Washington,” says Christopher Rowland, the paper’s Washing­ton bureau chief.

Other newspapers in Massachusetts are focusing closer to home on local news rather than covering Washington. The Springfield Republican was the last Massachusetts paper besides the Globe to have a Washington correspondent. It lost her when its corporate owner, Advance Publications, closed its Newhouse News Service in Washington in late 2008.

The Globe’s chief competitor in the Boston market, the Boston Herald, closed its two-person DC shop in 2005. Lead reporter Andrew Miga now covers politics in the northeastern states, including Massachusetts, for the Associated Press, and the Herald occasionally sends reporters south to cover top stories. Other papers, like the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the Cape Cod Times, left Washington long ago, with few regrets.

“In an ideal world, I’d rather have three more people covering town government than one in Washington,” says Chazy Dowaliby, editor of the Ledger and the Enterprise of Brockton.

In her view, as well as that of many of her fellow editors, small and mid-sized papers must now focus on the news that’s closest to home. “We have to do what nobody else is doing,” she says. “We need a spotlight on Washington, but lots of people are providing that.”
The Worcester Telegram, which is also owned by the New York Times, relied for years on graduate students in Boston University’s journalism program —who would spend a semester in Washington—to cover Worcester’s congressman, Jim McGovern, but BU shuttered its program this year. That’s regrettable, says the paper’s editor, Leah Lamson, but it’s not the end of the world in her view. “Our raison d’être is local news,” she says. “It’s who we are. We’re a local paper for central Massachu­setts.”

Lamson’s city editor keeps in regular touch with McGovern’s press secretary and she’ll assign a re­porter to cover McGovern when he is holding events in the district. State House reporter John Monahan also jumps in when McGovern is in the news.

Editors at smaller papers say they can usually get the information they need on what’s going on in Washington without a reporter on the ground there. “Even in Washington, the reporters aren’t in the cloak­rooms and you can develop sources in Hyannis just as well as you can in Washington,” says Cape Cod Times editor Paul Pronovost. “If I had additional resources, it’s not the first place I’d put them.”
Like other Massachusetts editors, Pronovost will send a reporter to Washington when something is going on with a big local impact. He did that, for example, when a senator from Alaska tried to insert language in legislation a few years ago that would have killed the Cape Wind project.

But most of the editors outside the Boston area say they pay more attention to the congressional delegation when they come home to campaign than when they are developing policy in Washington. The Patriot Ledger and the Cape Cod Times, for instance, are both devoting extra resources this year to the race to replace William Delahunt, the 10th District representative who is retiring after seven terms.

James Campanini, editor of the Sun in Lowell, who closed the paper’s one-person Washington bureau in mid-2008, does miss having a reporter in the capital. “When you have someone in Wash­ing­ton, you pick up more,” he says. “For a long time, we were one of the smallest papers with a full time reporter in Washington. We fought like hell to keep him, but we had to downsize.”

The Globe has downsized its bureau but continues to believe it can be a player on the national scene. The paper’s strong Washington coverage dates to the 1970s tenure of editor Tom Winship, who first envisioned the Globe as having a national scope. Combine that with Massachu­setts’ reputation as a training ground for politicians with national ambitions and it’s no wonder the paper has stuck with Washington.  

“Massachusetts is a big-league town when it comes to political talent and influence in Washington,” says Mark Jurkowitz, a former Globe ombudsman who’s now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

The Globe bureau has something of a split personality. It doesn’t have the resources to cover most day-to-day events in Washington or the routine work of the congressional delegation, yet it tries to provide coverage with high relevance to Massachusetts readers while at the same time competing for major national scoops with the New York Times and Washington Post.

In reality, that’s nothing new, says Walter Robinson, who led the Globe bureau in the 1980s and is now a professor at Northeastern University. “Even in the days when we had 11 or 12 reporters, the congressional delegation received scant coverage,” he says.
Rowland only has one reporter assigned, specifically, to delegation coverage—former State House and Boston City Hall reporter Matt Viser, who arrived in Washington earlier this year. Rowland makes no apologies for how he’s divvied up his resources. “We’re not going to cover the delegation like the State House bureau covers Deval Patrick,” he says. “There are too many things of national interest.”
Many of the stories Rowland cites with pride are pieces with little or no local angle that might well have run in big national papers. The stories range from coverage of development work in Afghanistan to nuclear proliferation to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Others have zeroed in on Massachusetts business sectors, including stories on Washington lobbying by biotech companies and by financial institutions.

When the bureau has targeted the congressional delegation, the stories tend to point out a big shift in attitude, as when Rep. Stephen Lynch—who’d been accused in the past of hostility to gay rights—won over gay and lesbian activists by opposing efforts to repeal a gay marriage law in the District of Columbia. Or they take note of a principled stand, as when loyal Democrat Jim McGovern opposed President Obama’s troop build-up in Afghanistan earlier this year. Others are broad and sweeping, such as a story last year that examined how Massachusetts lawmakers had provided earmarked federal funding for Bay State companies that gave money to their campaigns.

Rowland has dedicated a lot of ink to Scott Brown since the new senator arrived in the capital, assigning a big first-100-days story and a follow-up soon thereafter about how Brown joined Democrats in passing a major financial regulation bill. Rowland makes sure that John Kerry and Ed Markey—who are leading the push for climate change legislation, and Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee—get plenty of coverage.

The Globe plays Washington stories prominently. Row­land says he wants every story written by the bureau to compete for the front page and, for the most part, he’s succeeded. Since he took over last summer, the bureau has produced more than 450 stories, with 260 of them on page 1.

Tara McGuiness, a former Markey press secretary who now works for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, says Massachusetts news consumers are better off than their counterparts in other parts of the country. “There are entire states now with no one on the ground in Washington,” she says. “Massachu­setts is a rich media market and there’s a huge amount of legislation driven by the Massachusetts delegation, so it gets covered.”

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Shawn Zeller

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But Thomas Burr, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune and president of the Regional Reporters Association, worries about his organization’s shrinking size. The group, which represents Washington bureaus of regional papers, once boasted more than 200 members; it now has about 70.

“I fear in some ways that our watchdog role—that of pressing senators over controversial votes or digging through documents tucked away in Washington file cabinets or tracking a federal agency decision—is becoming a casualty,” he says.