After nine people were fatally shot at a prominent black church in Charleston, South Carolina this June, the hometown newspaper sprung into action. The Post and Courier’s breaking news story, published shortly after the shooting, carried three bylines. Before the week was out, the paper published a harrowing account that described the massacre in cinematic detail.
And when the shooting caused aftershocks in Washington, D.C., The Post and Courier stayed on the story. But in hindsight, the paper could’ve benefited from having a seasoned hand in Washington, D.C. to hold down its Beltway coverage, said Mitch Pugh, The Post and Courier’s executive editor.
“It would have been nice to have someone up there who had those sources and was able to help us out with that,” Pugh said.
Starting early next year, the paper will have just such a reporter. In a move that defies the general retreat from national politics coverage among many regional newspapers, The Post and Courier plans to hire a full-time Washington, D.C. correspondent sometime in January. The hire, Pugh says, will allow the newspaper to give readers a South Carolina take on Washington news whenever there’s a “a gap in coverage” in the larger D.C. press corps.
“Our goal is to have the person focus on things that matter to South Carolinians and matter to people in the South,” Pugh said. “We’re not going to chase the story of the day, we’re not going to be writing the same thing that the AP is writing. We’re going to be looking for ways to make our coverage different, make our coverage stand out a little bit from what everyone else is doing.”
The correspondent marks a return to Washington coverage for The Post and Courier, which had a full-time D.C. reporter before the recession hit, Pugh said. Like many regional newspapers, including The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Seattle Times and The (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal, The Post and Courier elected not to maintain its Washington bureau amid industry trends toward decreased print revenue and the abundance of free national political news.
But recent years have seen The Post and Courier beefing up its political coverage, Pugh said. The paper has bucked the status quo by investing in its Columbia bureau during a time of contraction for statehouse reporting nationwide. Its politics section is one of four staples of the paper’s “passion” coverage, alongside food writing, college football and project reporting. The paper, a privately held enterprise boasting more than 70 staffers, is coming off winning the coveted Public Service Pulitzer Prize for its investigation into domestic violence.
Likely assignments for the eventual correspondent include covering South Carolina’s congressional delegation, which Pugh says carries a lot of clout outside the Palmetto State. Sen. Lindsey Graham would also be a subject of interest, as would presumed national aspirations of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“I know there’s that old saying that all politics are local, but really these days all politics are global,” Pugh said.
When The Post and Courier returns to D.C., it will find itself among a severely diminished regional press corps. The Regional Reporters Association, a membership group for journalists from non-national outlets in Washington, has lost more than 100 members in the last 13 years or so, said Todd Gillman, the group’s president. Gillman, who’s also the Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, says the bureau has lost eight members since he arrived in the capital more than a decade ago.
In recent years, the association’s membership has held steady as newspapers throughout the country found a kind of equilibrium, Gillman said. The (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger recently reopened its D.C. bureau, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate hired a Washington correspondent in recent years and The Texas Tribune also added a D.C. reporter, Gillman said. Earlier today, WNYC announced the hiring of its first Washington correspondent.
“There are other bureaus that don’t exist anymore,” Gillman said. “And there are some that were six and are now two. So there has been an enormous amount of shrinkage — just not in recent years.”
Meanwhile, the national D.C. press corps has seen new entrants as national digital media organizations staff up and devote resources to politics coverage. BuzzFeed, POLITICO and The Daily Beast — which didn’t exist a decade ago – all have reporters filling seats in the White House briefing room with coverage to match.
The Post and Courier’s decision to open a D.C. bureau could be a harbinger of renewed interest in Washington reporting among regional news organizations, said Ellen Shearer, interim director of the Medill Washington Program. Although legislative leaders draw lots of coverage from the D.C. press corps, many regional stories still slip through the cracks. National stories like the passage of the Affordable Care Act have import for local and regional readers, who would be served by having a journalist in Washington.
“Was there a pullback?” Shearer asked. “Absolutely. Is it as robust as it used to be? No, I don’t think so. But I think the Charleston decision is a good indicator.”