The Union-Tribune’s uncovering of the Randy “Duke” Cunningham bribery case has often been cited as the reason local newspapers had bureaus in Washington.

Now it’s being cited as an example of what local newspapers are missing out on by cutting those bureaus. The New York Times has a story today that examines the stark cutbacks in Washington coverage by papers around the country.

Reporter Richard Perez-Peña frequently cites the Union-Tribune as the emblem for what’s being lost:

Newspaper executives say it makes no economic sense to have hundreds of reporters writing about the same set of events each day. Even the affected journalists concede that on breaking news, news agency articles are often fine for their papers.

The much greater loss, the journalists say, is the decline of Washington reporting on local matters — the foibles of a hometown congressman or a public works project in the paper’s backyard. One after another, they cited the example of the San Diego paper’s Washington bureau for exposing the corruption of Representative Randall Cunningham, who is known as Duke.

In accepting a Pulitzer Prize for that work in 2006, “we were bold enough to hope that it would be the first of many, but it turned out to be the high point,” said George E. Condon Jr., the last bureau chief. “No matter how much great journalism is done by national organizations, they’re simply not geared to monitor closely a member of Congress from, say, San Diego, who’s not a national leader.”

Our own Randy Dotinga had a deeper examination of the U-T’s decision in a September story. Marcus Stern, one of the paper’s now-departed Pulitzer winners, told Dotinga:

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.”

ROB DAVIS

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