DC bureau cutbacks bring shift in comms

The closings of Washington media bureaus, and severe cutbacks at others, are resulting in a simple equation for DC-based journalists and PR pros: Less staff equals fewer story opportunities, less experienced correspondents, and more work for communications pros to establish relationships with key outlets.

The closings of Washington media bureaus, and severe cutbacks at others, are resulting in a simple equation for DC-based journalists and PR pros: Less staff equals fewer story opportunities, less experienced correspondents, and more work for communications pros to establish relationships with key outlets.

That diminution of the DC media ecosystem hastened last month when Cox, publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Austin American-Statesman, announced it plans to close its bureau in April. The Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun, also began to consolidate DC coverage among its outlets last year, while also reducing staff. Numerous other media organizations preceded them.

A result is that media organizations are increasingly covering the federal government from afar – literally and figuratively, says Stan Collender, MD at Qorvis Communications. Collender adds that the decreasing number of Washington journalists is a source of “constant discussions, both formal and informal, about what this means for our clients.”

“There will be more coverage of the first 100 days [of President-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration] from 50,000 feet, but the days when there was a beat reporter to cover each agency and department are gone – you're not going to get that depth of coverage,” he says. “They'll cover [the appointment of CIA director-designate Leon] Panetta, but a lot of the coverage... about smaller – but no less significant – issues isn't going to be there.”

Bill McIntyre, EVP at Grassroots Enterprise, adds that the reduction in the number of working journalists in Washington will make PR pros more influential to reporters who have less time but more demands than in the past. However, the increase in clout is also resulting in more responsibility for communications pros, who are now expected to offer additional background materials and sources to journalists, he says.

“Frankly, I think it makes the red dress a little shorter. The PR professional becomes a heck of a lot more influential because journalistic resources are dwindling and they're going to have to rely more on people who can package a story for them,” McIntyre explains. “However, the PR folks, they're going to have to get beyond the simple press release. What is really going to help the PR person is if they can deliver the additional source who can go beyond the company line.”

The bureau cutbacks aren't occurring at the most opportune time, either. Last year's bailout of several major financial institutions moved much of the nation's financial power structure from New York to Washington. Thus, bureau reporters are even more thinly stretched, while PR practitioners are also reaching far beyond the Beltway with story pitches, according to Rob Mathias, MD at Ogilvy, who adds that his agency is seeing about three times more resumes from journalists than in past years.

“[We are also] pitching local bureaus from here, and [PR pros] have to be a little more sensitive that the reporter they're pitching has a beat that doesn't include national issues, and that their time is truncated,” he says. “We also continue to see that at the [DC] bureaus remaining open... there is extraordinary pressure on these journalists to write also for the Web and blog and appear on [TV]... there is a level of sophistication that we did not have to have in the past, and we have to be that much smarter, and really that much more sympathetic.”

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