Jesse Holcomb
Jesse Holcomb, Associate Director of Research, Pew Research Center

The news industry has been particularly vulnerable to the disruptions of the digital age and the same is true for one of its most visible components – the Washington press corps. Pew Research Center first studied the changes starting to take place in Washington-based journalism in a 2009 report. Now, a new report provides an update on just how much has changed since then. The new analysis also takes a close look at coverage of Washington by reporters at daily newspapers for their communities back home.

Jesse Holcomb, associate director of research at the Center, explains how the new report was put together.

This report brings together multiple sources of data to show how journalism in and about Washington has changed in recent years. How did you decide what to use?  

There’s no single definitive database that accounts for every journalist or news organization based in Washington, D.C. But there are a number of data sources – accreditation lists, directories and association memberships – that, when examined together, offer robust data on the mix of reporters here and how those numbers have changed over time.

In particular, we relied on the lists of journalists accredited to the four U.S. Senate Galleries – press, periodical, radio-TV and photographers – which credential journalists who reside in the Washington area to be allowed to enter the Senate gallery and the rest of the Capitol complex. While accreditation is administered by Senate staff, it does not necessarily mean journalists who are accredited limit their reporting to Congress. Rather, accreditation also serves in a way as a kind of ticket of entry into Washington political life for these reporters.

We also utilized data from Hudson’s Washington News Media Contacts Directory, the Regional Reporters Association and the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Press Center in Washington. Each of those data sources helped us understand a different component of the Washington press corps, and, in general, reinforced the larger picture. We rounded out those data sources with a series of in-depth interviews with current and former Washington journalists and editors, as well as other experts; we did 21 interviews in all.

Are there journalists or news organizations with a presence in Washington that are not accounted for in the report?

Many of the journalists accredited by the Senate galleries may also cover other institutions, such as federal agencies, and these often keep their own separate lists of credentialed reporters. The work of these agencies certainly is also critical when it comes to keeping citizens informed. We reached out to those agencies several times and in some cases succeeded in obtaining current lists. But ultimately, we were unable to acquire data that were current, complete and able to be examined over time. It’s an area we are still interested in, and exploring.

Additionally, it is certainly possible that there are other journalists and news organizations with a presence in the nation’s capital that are not officially credentialed to Congress and therefore not accounted for here. But the sources we used do provide broad trends over time, and, taken together, offer a comprehensive view into the range of reporters that cover the federal government.

A second component of the report studied federal government news coverage produced by a group of local newspapers – four with their own Washington correspondent, and four without. With all of the new varieties of news publishers in Washington, why study local newspapers, whose readership is on the decline in many cases?

Among local news providers, newspapers have historically held the largest presence in Washington. They served as eyes and ears for newspaper readers when it comes to the work of their elected congressman and the federal government in general, connecting the events and policies of Washington to local interests and concerns. While the industry is struggling today, newspapers still have a greater presence in Washington than other local outlets, such as local television stations.

How did you select the newspapers to study?

We wanted a sample of newspapers that reflected a range of attributes, in order to minimize a selection bias that could skew our results. To do that, we chose eight different papers with different owners, based in different states in regions around the U.S. The papers also reflected a range of circulation sizes as well.

We started with a list of daily newspapers in the U.S., ranked according to circulation by the Alliance for Audited Media. We then merged that list with other lists of newspapers that have their own correspondent and/or bureau in Washington. With a new list, we set out to identify four newspapers that met our criteria: First, they had to have a Washington correspondent. Second, they had to be based in different regions of the country. Third, they had to have different owners. Finally, they had to vary according to circulation size.

Once we had identified papers that met those criteria, we then set out to select another group of four papers that met the same criteria outlined above but did not have a Washington correspondent of their own.

While the resulting list of papers may not represent all daily newspapers, it does broadly reflect the mix of daily papers that serve local communities with news about the federal government. So, we were able to assess the kind of coverage these papers publish.

The report describes how D.C. correspondents for local papers are more likely to focus their coverage around the impact of news on government or politicians, rather than on citizens. What do you mean by “impact”?  

In our analysis of federal government news coverage, we evaluated stories through the lens of who or what would be affected by the main news event being reported on. We found that in many cases D.C. correspondents focused more on how Washington actors or institutions would be affected by the news they were reporting than on how ordinary citizens would be affected. A good example here was one story we studied about elected leaders’ opposing views on a national piece of legislation, which focused mainly on how the stance could have an impact on the electoral futures of these leaders rather than how the legislation would affect citizens.

When you add all of this up, what does it mean for the news consumer?

In some ways, the public has more at their disposal today than in the past when it comes to news about the activities, regulations and policies of Washington. In fact, the total number of journalists accredited to the four Senate galleries rose slightly between 2009 and 2014. The growth was especially pronounced in certain areas: For instance, the number of accredited journalists working for digital-native news outlets increased fourfold during the main time period studied (2009 to 2014).

Yet, from the local perspective, news coverage of federal government has suffered. The information link between local communities and the nation’s capital, represented largely by daily newspaper reporters, is strained. In 1998, there were 859 newspaper reporters on the hill; by 2014, that number had shrunk to 576. The Regional Reporters Association – an organization for journalists who cover Washington on behalf of local communities – had roughly 200 members in the mid-1990s; today it counts 59 on its rolls. Between 2009 and 2014 alone, the number of states with any local newspaper staff accredited to cover Congress went from 33 to 29.

That’s not to say it has been entirely downhill. Some newspapers have begun to reinvest in Washington coverage. And among the digital startups with a presence in the capital, a handful serves local communities or individual states. But, even those committing resources to Washington are often doing so at lower levels than in the past. The structural challenges for American journalism will continue to face publishers and owners as they seek to allocate their resources, whether in Washington or at home.

Jesse Holcomb  is a former associate director of research at Pew Research Center.