After Six Decades, Union-Tribune Shutters D.C. Bureau

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008 | The San Diego Union-Tribune’s 64-year-old Washington D.C. bureau will close later this year as all of its four remaining reporters leave the newspaper.

“There’s no getting around the fact that it’s sad, not a good development,” said George E. Condon Jr., who’s been the bureau chief for 24 years. “It’s not good for our democracy or our readers to not have that kind of coverage. You’d get no dissent on this from the editors. There are just some economic realities.”

The Union-Tribune is for sale and last month announced that it hoped to eliminate 78 positions through buyouts, including 31 in the newsroom. The paper has already gone through rounds of job-cutting in recent years as it suffers from declines in advertising and circulation.

The elimination of the D.C. bureau comes just two years after the Union-Tribune won its only Pulitzer Prize — in conjunction with the Copley News Service — for its coverage of the Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham bribery scandal. The story was uncovered by Copley News Service, which then served as the capital bureau to the Union-Tribune and the rest of the Copley newspaper chain, reporters at the D.C. bureau; the two reporters singled out for their work have since left.

Of the current reporters in the bureau, Dana Wilkie, who covers the San Diego congressional delegation, and Paul Krawzak, who covers military and business, will take buyouts and leave at the end of the month, Condon said.

Condon, who covers national politics, is also taking a buyout. “I’ll stay through the campaign and then shut down the office and turn out the lights on Nov. 30,” he said. Another bureau reporter, Finley Lewis, said he has agreed to leave the paper at the end of the year. He covers economics, politics and the White House.

In a buyout, an employee agrees to accept a severance package in return for leaving the paper. The employee escapes the prospect of being laid off and getting a worse severance package if not enough workers sign up for buyouts.

It’s not clear whether the Union-Tribune accepted enough buyout applications — the deadline was earlier this month — to avoid more layoffs. At least 20 employees had accepted the offer as of Monday.

“If the paper was not being sold, I wouldn’t even consider a buyout,” said Condon, who has worked at the bureau since 1982. “You just can’t take a chance if you’re in a Washington bureau on not knowing who the new owner is. We could be bought by someone who already has a Washington bureau, who’d have no interest in keeping us. Or you could be bought by venture capitalists who just want to strip the paper down.”

The D.C. bureau — known as Copley News Service until earlier this year —has been shrinking for two years.

In 2006, it had a staff of 10 reporters serving the Union-Tribune and its sister papers in Illinois, Ohio and Torrance, Calif., Condon said. Now, the bureau has only four reporters, all of whom serve the Union-Tribune.

Copley Press, owner of the Union-Tribune, sold the Copley News Service to Creators Syndicate, which folded the service into its offerings on July 1.

The closure of the D.C. bureau is “really quite a shame,” said Marcus Stern, who with Jerry Kammer received a special Pulitzer mention for his Copley News Service work on the Cunningham stories. Stern now works for the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica.

“There will be nobody in Washington who will be looking out for San Diego’s interests in Washington, gathering news and information for people in San Diego,” Stern said. “Wire services just don’t do that.”

The Union-Tribune is the latest in a long line of newspapers to reduce or eliminate their D.C.-based staff in recent years.

Earlier this year, Politico.com profiled the difficulties facing Suzanne Struglinski, then-president of the Regional Reporters Association, as she tried to find D.C.-based correspondents to sign up for the organization. Struglinski, who covered D.C. for the Deseret (Salt Lake City) Morning News, later lost her job.

According to The Washington Post, the 14-reporter Newhouse News Service is cutting its staff, leaving individual Newhouse newspapers to decide whether to keep correspondents on board. The Portland (Maine) Press Herald also recently eliminated its sole correspondent position; The Philadelphia Inquirer is down to one D.C.-based journalist, the Post reported.

It seems likely that D.C.-based coverage will continue to decline as newspapers continue to shed jobs in general. Just today, the McClatchy Co. — which owns The Sacramento Bee, among other papers — announced job cutbacks of 10 percent.

“Readers will suffer,” said Sylvia A. Smith, Washington editor for The (Ft. Wayne, Ind.) Journal Gazette and president of the National Press Club, of the D.C. cutbacks.

“When I came to Washington in 1989, there were enough Indiana reporters that we would regularly have luncheon meetings with a newsmaker, a congressional candidate or a member of the Bush administration from Indiana,” she said. “It was worth their while to come to talk to eight or nine of us. Now there are two (Indiana reporters based in D.C.).”

One of the jobs of reporters based in Washington D.C. is to closely monitor congressional representatives, Smith said. “Members of Congress do not advertise failures or being on what their constituents would see as the wrong side of an issue,” Smith said. “They overinflate their involvement in successful legislation, take credit for bills that might be popular back home but that they didn’t necessarily have anything to do with.

“What people lose is a fuller look at people who have a huge influence on their day-to-day lives, a fuller look at what they do,” Smith said. “It’s dangerous for democracy to not have that regular scrutiny by reporters who are based here.”

Lewis, who has worked at the D.C. bureau for 20 years, said Copley News Service reporters have had plenty of successes beyond the famous Cunningham coverage. “We were doing all sorts of interesting and innovative reporting about San Diego, its stake in Washington and the congressmen who represented it,” said Lewis, who added that the service’s immigration coverage has been especially strong.

“We’re all justifiably quite proud of what this bureau has achieved and accomplished,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story understated the size of the Newhouse bureau based on information in The Washington Post. We regret the error.

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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