December 18, 2008

One of the reasons I was glad to leave journalism is that it's now run by media owners who are much more interested in profit margins than in any kind of public service. Newspapers, as far as I know, are still profitable. They simply don't make the kind of obscene profit margins demanded by Wall St. analysts and investors.

What this means, in real terms, is that far fewer reporters will be watching the Beltway store. That's good news - and bad news. Good news that fewer reporters will be tempted to write gossip-driven, negative stories based on their personal dislikes. The bad news is, there will be far fewer journalists watching the store. I predict that once Congress members figure out they're flying under the radar, bad behavior will escalate:

The year was 2000, and Cox Newspapers had about 30 people in Washington to cover the new Bush administration.

Eight years later, a similar transformation is under way, the stakes heightened by two foreign wars and the worst economic collapse in decades, but Cox will not be there to cover it. Cox, the publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Austin American-Statesman and 15 other papers, announced this month that its Washington bureau would simply close its doors on April 1.

Cox is not alone. Another major chain, Advance Publications, owner of The Star-Ledger of Newark, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and other papers, just closed a Washington bureau that had more than 20 people.

Like a number of smaller papers, The San Diego Union-Tribune recently shuttered its bureau, which had four people at the end. Three years ago, the parent company, Copley Press, had an 11-person bureau in Washington, but it has since sold most of its papers.

Those that remain have cut back drastically on Washington coverage, eliminating hundreds of journalists’ jobs at a time when the federal government — and journalistic oversight of it — matters more than ever. Television and radio operations in Washington are shrinking, too, although not as sharply.

The times may be news-rich, but newspapers are cash-poor, facing their direst financial straits since the Depression. Racing to cut costs as they lose revenue, most have decided that their future lies in local news, not national or international events. That has put a bull’s-eye on expensive Washington bureaus.

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