The vanishing newspaper bureaus
Over the last couple of years, much has been made over the steady demise of newspaper bureaus that once flourished in the nation’s capital. But recent closings of offices across the country have made it clear that it isn’t just the D.C. bureau that’s going extinct – bureaus everywhere have become endangered.
Reports that the Washington Post would close its bureaus in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles recently abounded in the media. The announcement came on the heels of the Associated Press’ decision to close its bureaus in Roanoke, Va., Grand Rapids, Mich., Dayton, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Fla. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal revealed that it would close its Boston bureau by the end of 2009. According to Vocus Media Research, at least 50 bureaus have closed since January, including ones at major papers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Des Moines Register, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Baltimore Sun, Tampa Tribune and the Morning Call.
As bureaus continue to close, shrinking coverage means less competition and fewer contacts. “It’s a bad thing for the consumer. The newspaper business is failing to develop alternative business models and the long-term sustainability of the free press is definitely in doubt. Any loss of news coverage is a bad thing,” said Jack Myers, media economist and founder of the M.E.D.I.Advisory Group, in an e-mail interview.
Declining coverage and changes aren’t just bad for the consumer; they affect all facets of the industry. Consequently, fewer bureaus mean more reporters are working as home-based correspondents. For the public relations industry, this and other changes can prove trying. “It’s definitely more difficult to get in touch with a journalist if they’re not working from home or not working out of an office during the workweek,” said Nicole Stipp, an account executive at the Walker Marchant Group. “However, PR practitioners just have to be more diligent in their research and more proactive in their outreach to secure relevant information.”
Melissa Neumann, executive vice president of Eastwick Communications, agrees. As long as a PR professional has an established relationship with a contact, keeping in touch with journalists shouldn’t be too difficult. In fact, the existence of social media channels like Twitter have made it easier to keep track of reporters who have moved, she noted in an e-mail interview. However, the constant transformations happening in the media still present a challenge. “There are a lot of changes happening with people shifting roles, moving to freelance status, publications merging that it can be almost a fulltime job to track all the movement and stay current.”
Despite dwindling coverage, there are some who believe that digital news organizations can help replace the reporting that is sacrificed when bureaus close. Last month, Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian hypothesized that digital media operations like Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, which both have bureaus in D.C., would overtake coverage that had disappeared in the area. “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,” he wrote. The same could be said for cities across the nation that are now host to digital news agencies such as the Chicago News Cooperative, which provide local news stories to the New York Times Chicago Report and to public television station WTTW. “Digital News organizations (Propublica, Voice of San Diego, Chicago News Co-op) are becoming bigger and more efficient,” said David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group. In fact, he noted in the upcoming Vocus State of the Media Report that they are doing the work that once was the sole domain of the AP “because they are more localized and familiar with the area they are covering.” Many of these Web-based news organizations have popped up in the last couple of years touting a specialty in investigative reporting and a non-profit business model.
Although digital media fills a niche of news-producing outlets, Stipp said in an e-mail interview, it doesn’t fill the gaps. In fact, she doesn’t think this type of media could ever truly replace traditional media. “Print media and digital media shouldn’t be seen as two competing interests – one stepping up where the other is lacking – they should be seen as complimentary news sources for the public to have more rigorous access to information,” she said.
While traditional media wanes and newspapers like the Washington Post close their bureaus to “concentrate our journalistic firepower on our central missions of covering Washington,” news continues to exist, said Myers. “We are seeing AOL, MSN and Yahoo all expanding their local news coverage.” he said. “Newspapers are disappearing. Local news coverage is not.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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