An era in North Country – and national – journalism came to a quiet close at the end of March. The Watertown Daily Times closed its Washington, D.C. bureau, laying off the last of its capitol beat reporters, part of a tradition that stretches back more than 60 years.
The closure is part of a steep decline in regional newspapers providing their own eyes and ears on the ground in Washington, looking out for their readers' and their regions' interests as federal policy is made.
Joanna Richards has more.
The Times was the smallest newspaper in the country to maintain a Washington bureau, and one of a sharply declining number of regional papers to do so in an era of budget cuts in print newsrooms. Over the decades, its reporters covered stories ranging from the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, to the expansion of Fort Drum, to milk pricing. All with the north country perspective firmly in mind.
I sat down last week to talk with Marc Heller, the last of the Times’s Washington reporters, and Bert Gault, his editor at the Watertown paper.
Gault: "We closed the bureau the last weekend of March, but we’ve known since last fall when we were putting together the budget for this year that the first quarter was going to be all we could finance."
Reporter: "So tell me little bit about some of the discussions that went on behind the scenes. I mean, this must have been a really painful decision for everybody here."
Gault: "It was terribly painful for everybody, yes. We've had the pleasure and the luxury of the Washington bureau for more than 60 years, something newspapers our size just have not had in that whole period, and for the Johnsons in particular, it was rather heart-wrenching. We've known for awhile that at some point that we'd have to pull the plug and actually taking the action was very difficult."
Reporter: "Talk to me a little bit about why it was so important, why the company was willing to forego, you know, some profit for this investment for its readers. You know, why was that such an important thing to do?"
Gault: "First and foremost of course we’re a newspaper company. And we're locally owned, family owned, we don't answer to the pressures of Wall Street and outside stockholders and therefore the overwhelming force here has been, you know, what makes a good newspaper, rather than what makes a good, profitable company. And it was just decided many, many years ago that this would be a good thing to give to our readers. My understanding is in fact that we opened the bureau in response to raising the price, the cover price of the newspaper from 10 cents to 15 cents, and this was one way that we justified that exorbitant 50 percent increase in the cost, was by saying now we're going to give you better news out of Washington."
Gault says the Times will have to get used to not having its own eyes and ears on the ground in the capitol. That means more contact by phone, e-mail … more use of the Internet.
Gault: "It’s going to be harder to not be on the scene with these people and dealing with them face-to-face and seeing, getting the advantage of seeing the day-to-day operations of federal agencies, but it's something that smaller newspapers like us and other small news organizations have done over the years and we’re going to have to get used to it."
Marc Heller was the newspaper’s eyes and ears in Washington for the past 14 years. He felt fortunate the bureau was able to last so long. He’s watched as other small newspapers closed down their D.C. offices. And he says the on-the-scene reporting will be hard to replace.
Heller: "It means that the local congressman can’t just, can't just disappear, I mean I'm there, you know. I'm there everyday and I can, I can chase people down and talk to them and that sort of thing. It's not, it's not the kind of thing where you have to just rely on their goodwill to return your phone calls."
Reporter: "So the Watertown Daily Times I know has prided itself for a long time on being the smallest paper in the country to maintain a D.C. bureau, and I'm sure you must have shared that pride. What was it like – you wrote a little bit about this in your piece, about watching other reporters, D.C. reporters from regional papers sort of slide away, you know, one at a time, you know. What was that like, watching that, for you?"
Heller: "Well, I mean, it's hard. I mean, I've lost, I've seen friends disappear, or I've just sort of wondered where they went. You know a few years goes by and I sort of say to myself, hey, you know, so-and-so, you know there used to be someone here for the Bangor Daily News in Maine or something and all of a sudden I realize that person's not there anymore. And, and suddenly I would discover them covering events and hearings and things like that where there used to be daily news reporters there and there aren't anymore, and it's all people from, from you know National Journal and Capitol Hill publications and things like that, but the newspaper reporters who used to be there just are gone."
Reporter: "You really had sort of an old-fashioned career trajectory, starting off in this area, really learning what the region was about. You wrote in your piece for the Times about, you know, farmers teaching you about agriculture, things like that, and going on to represent the paper as a journalist in D.C. What kind of perspective did that give you, you know, learning in this area and then going, going on to D.C. to cover national policy?"
Heller: "Well, I think I found myself to be different from a lot of other regional reporters who I knew in D.C., because a lot of them had never written for their home papers back in town. Some of them had, but a lot of them, if you go into some of the bureaus like Gannett and some of them like that, these are reporters who are experienced, but they were not reporters so much for their local papers back home, and I always felt really fortunate that I – I mean, I feel like I've known my audience, that I've maintained friendships up north, and knew people who I could call, you know, I mean I might have met a farmer, you know, 15 or almost 20 years ago and I feel that I could still call that person and talk about what some sort of policy might or might not be like for him or ask just a little bit about how it's going and that would give me some extra perspective."
It’s a perspective north country readers will miss. Heller says that’s what makes him saddest.
Heller: "And this is what all these little, regional, smaller, regional papers have to deal with, that they have had a way of covering specific things that the wire services just don't do. The Associated Press has cut back in Washington; they're not going into Farm Bill hearings, listening to stuff about milk pricing or stuff like that, so these things are simply going to go uncovered. And that's sad. It diminishes the newspaper, I think."
And armed with less information about what's going on, that diminishes the ability of north country constituents to hold their political leaders accountable.
Marc Heller has found a six-month gig covering agriculture and the Farm Bill for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington. But like print journalism in general, he's facing an uncertain and challenging future.