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Monday, Nov. 12, 2007 | Marcus Stern is the author of the best article I’ve ever read in The San Diego Union-Tribune. His June 2005 article about Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s home sale was a classic example of what Bob Woodward of The Washington Post famously referred to as the “Holy Shit” story because that’s exactly what I said after reading it.

And I wasn’t the only one. The FBI agent who later led the bureau’s investigation into Cunningham told me he finished the story that Sunday and immediately called his supervisor asking to be a part of the bribery investigation he knew was coming. Stern showed how the congressman had sold his home to a defense contractor, who then sold the home a year later for a $700,000 loss. Were it not for Stern’s story, Cunningham might still be in office instead of prison, where he’s serving a sentence of more than eight years for taking millions of dollars in bribes.

The work justly earned Stern and his colleagues the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Service, journalism’s highest honor. I realize it’s easy to be cynical about the Pulitzers. Who really cares, after all, whether The New York Times wins three Pulitzers in 2008, two, or only one? But when a smaller newspaper like the Union-Tribune gets its due, reporters toiling away in Podunk towns feel like the door is still open for them, too — if they keep digging. I happened to be in the Union-Tribune newsroom the day the winners were announced. The mood, usually somnolent, was euphoric. As the staff cheered, editor Karin Winner, thrust her arms in the air. “We did it!” her own newspaper quoted Winner as saying. “It’s just the first of many. I am just so proud of this great group of people.”

One year later, things have changed. Stern has decided to leave his job after nearly a quarter-century in Washington with Copley News Service. (Copley News Service and the Union-Tribune are owned by Copley Press Inc. of San Diego.) Also on the way out is Jerry Kammer, who the Pulitzer Prize Committee singled out for praise in the Cunningham story along with Stern. Kammer’s hard-hitting December 2005 investigation of the close ties between Rep. Jerry Lewis and lobbyist and former Rep. Bill Lowery is credited with sparking a separate federal investigation that is still underway. (Stern and Kammer wrote a book about the Cunningham case, and, in the interest of full disclosure, so did I.) The two Pulitzer winners will both be accepting severance packages even as their stories continue to resonate.

Copley News Service’s Washington bureau began the year with a staff of 10. It will end it with three or four (the final numbers were still being worked out), and they will be absorbed by the Union-Tribune. Mexico City correspondent Lynne Walker, a Pulitzer finalist, will also join the Union-Tribune staff, as will the two-person bureau in Sacramento. The Los Angeles bureau of Copley is closing down altogether. The news syndicate part of the business will continue, but what else will remain of Copley News Service isn’t clear.

The news service was established to serve the company’s chain of newspapers, but almost all of those papers have been sold off to pay owner David Copley’s estate taxes. The death of Copley’s mother, Helen, in 2004 left her only child with a staggering debt to the IRS. (Estate taxes are sometimes blamed for killing off family-owned newspapers in America.)

Faced with insufficient resources to pay the bill, Copley probably had little choice but to sell off the company’s dailies in Ohio and Illinois this year with the goal of hanging on to the flagship Union-Tribune.

No one would have missed Copley New Service had it perished in the first half of its 52-year existence. The news service that ended Cunningham’s career reportedly began life as a CIA front. James S. Copley, David’s father, offered President Eisenhower his fledgling news service to act as “the eyes and ears” of the U.S. intelligence community in Latin America, according to a 1977 expose by journalists Joe Trento and Dave Roman in Penthouse magazine. CIA operatives were placed on the payroll, the story goes, and the new service exchanged information for scoops. It was all furiously denied by the Copleys, but even the company’s own historian conceded that the news service had a “sad and thoroughly undistinguished” past.

George Condon, the Copley News Service bureau chief, is credited with turning things around. The news service’s reputation and the quality of its work underwent a vast improvement after Condon took over in 1984. Condon covered every trip overseas that Presidents Reagan and the elder Bush made. He was named president of the White House Correspondents Association and the National Press Foundation, an acknowledgement that professionals had taken over at Copley News Service. But Condon’s more important contribution was, in my view, to give his reporters the time and space to follow their instincts, which led to the stories on Cunningham, Lewis and Lowery.

David Copley’s tax bill came due just as the Washington staff was doing its best work.

It’s hard these days to find a newspaper that isn’t cutting or eliminating its Washington staff, and the Union-Tribune, like many dailies, is in bad shape. Copley’s family ownership, if anything, may have delayed the inevitable. More people like you are reading computer screens, instead of newspapers.

The Union-Tribune’s daily circulation has been falling since 2004; it recently dipped below 300,000. But losing two Pulitzer winners in the bargain is a bad deal for Copley. The departures of Stern and Kammer send a signal that as bad as things are now, they’re going to get worse. Why didn’t the company work harder to find a place for them? Copley Press and Karin Winner declined requests to comment.

A more important matter, for me, is whether the cuts in the Washington bureau will even be noticed by the Union-Tribune’s ever-shrinking readership. I fear they will, and not because of what’s in the paper, but because of what isn’t. Given what Copley News Service reporters dug up recently, our congressional delegation deserves extra attention. The Washington Post and The New York Times can handle the hoo-hah of the 2008 political conventions and the presidential race, but Fightin’ Bob Filner, Darrell Issa, and Duncan Hunter aren’t on their radars.

George Condon assured me that the local delegation will remain the top priority for his Washington staff. I hope that’s true. Who knows what else is out there waiting to be uncovered? If the city’s only major daily paper won’t mind the store for us, who will?

Correction: George Condon had been named the chairman of the National Press Foundation, not the president as had originally appeared in this article.

Author and freelance journalist Seth Hettena writes The Peanut Gallery, an occasional look at San Diego media and journalism, for voiceofsandiego.org. You can e-mail him at seth@sethhettena.com.

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