Watertown bureau closure signals end of journalism era

The Watertown Daily Times, which for years had the distinction of being the smallest newspaper in the country to staff a full-time Washington, D.C. bureau, will shutter the one-man operation today.

The demise of The Times’ bureau signals the tragic end of an era in which smaller newspapers kept a watchful eye on the federal government. It comes precisely at a time when the public most needs the media to examine government.

The closure, announced at the end of February, is only the most recent in a stream of news organizations shuttering or severely trimming their Washington bureaus over the last five years. The reason? Money.

One of the first cuts in newsrooms around the country, besides health insurance benefits and complimentary retirement sheet cakes, has been bureaus. They’re enormously expensive and much of the content produced can be bought from a wire service such as The Associated Press.

It’s understandable that The Times made the decision to close its Washington bureau. With a circulation around 30,000, it covers a three-county area in northern New York, several hundred square miles larger than Connecticut.

So what will really be lost with the disappearing of the bureaus in the capital? Yes, the public will still get the major stories despite the numerous news organizations that have left Washington. What it won’t get, however, are two vital kinds of reporting. The first is in-depth local coverage. The second is intensive investigative journalism.

It might seem foolish to associate local news with our nation’s capital, but there are some things that can’t be gleamed from Facebook, Twitter or a press release. Good reporting demands boots on the ground. It requires tireless reporters shaking hands, reaching out to sources and working to cull any minute detail they can.

Consider the late Alan Emory, who founded The Times’ Washington bureau in 1950. Close friends with famed White House reporter Helen Thomas, Emory had been on a first-name basis with every president since Richard Nixon. He also had working relationships with dozens of senators, members of Congress and the Canadian ambassador.

From his office in Washington, Emory, and later his successor Marc Heller, was in a unique position to report on matters of local importance. Issues ranging from the military’s massive Fort Drum and border security, to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the changing face of agriculture received special attention because The Times had a man in the capital.

Even if some of the local coverage by papers in Washington is unnecessary, it’s impossible to forget that reporting by the newspaper giants is also suffering. Countless media conglomerates have cut back or ended their Washington presence even after combining many individual paper’s operations.

Investigative reporting and comprehensive coverage aren’t cheap. The recent health care case before the Supreme Court was the focus of tremendous media attention. The New York Times, in its maniacal quest to be excellent at everything, has a Supreme Court correspondent whose job it is to cover the Court, day in and day out. I’d rather get my news from him instead of some guy with an Internet connection and a Twitter account.

The fact is that good reporting means sore necks, dry eyes and mountains of paper. Most Washington bureaus now lack the manpower to sift through the Pentagon’s immense budget or follow the president wherever he goes.

The end result is fewer newspapers with fewer resources trying to cover more news. Things will be missed and increasingly the press in Washington has been letting the president and Congress direct its news coverage, instead of the press keeping our elected officials on their toes. Imagine if Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t uncovered Watergate. Each day an ocean of Watergate stories gets away, and that’s unacceptable. The press, especially in Washington, need to be our watchdog and we need a rottweiler on a long leash, not a poodle stuck in the doghouse.