There, I said it.
From Washington Monthly:
Confessions of a Paywall Journalist
Thanks to a booming trade press, lobbyists and other insiders know what’s happening in government. The rest of the country, not so much.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
Curious about that finding, I called Richard Charter, an environmentalist, oil-drilling expert, and senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation to ask him what he thought. Charter told me that the use of a general permit to cover discharges over a broad area like the Gulf of Mexico is ridiculous, and, more specifically, that there were ways in which the EPA went about reissuing the old permit that might not be totally legal under the National Environmental Policy Act.
But the more important issue, Charter said, was the hopeless inadequacy of the government’s oversight of offshore oil drilling. Federal oversight agencies had been documenting shortcomings and conflicts of interest at the Minerals Management Service for years, he said, and in 2003 the House Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony outlining the ways in which response agencies and drilling companies were unprepared to handle a blowout if it got out of hand.
The dangers were not hypothetical, Charter said. The Montara blowout in Western Australia had just that August spilled more than one million gallons of oil into the Timor Sea and took seventy-four days to cap. Closer to home, if not in more recent memory, was the Ixtoc blowout in 1979, which spilled more than three million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico and took almost a year to cap.
I thanked Charter for his time and wrote my story about the EPA permit, ignoring the broader issue of oil platforms or their environmental risks. Five months later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded forty miles off the coast of Louisiana, killing eleven people and setting off the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
By any measure, Deepwater Horizon was the most important environmental catastrophe of the decade, and it illustrated deep and profound shortcomings in the U.S. regulatory approach to offshore drilling. And when it happened, I knew that I had been handed a credible lead and had blown it.
But I couldn’t have followed that lead even if I had wanted to. Offshore drilling safety was tangential, at best, to the core issues covered by the newsletter I was writing for. The law firms and companies that subscribed to us paid thousands of dollars each for a subscription, and they paid that much because we helped them stay abreast of every bit of policy minutia that came out of the government in order to identify threats to their existing investments and potential new investments, or to keep their current clients informed and attract new clients. They paid for the story I wrote, not the story I missed.
On some level, I thought that if what Charter was telling me was that big a deal, it would already have been reported in the New York Times, or on 60 Minutes, or—more likely—in one of the regional newspapers like the Houston Chronicle or the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which report on areas where offshore oil drilling is a big part of the local economy and readers have a keener-than-average interest in the possibility of catastrophic oil accidents. I probably would have been right had it been twenty years earlier. But by 2009, newspapers in general, and the big regional papers especially, were in the midst of a colossal wave of downsizing brought about by the collapse of their business model. With internet outlets like Craigslist siphoning away their classified ads, newspapers could no longer afford to subsidize their large D.C. bureaus, with teams of reporters covering Congress and the agencies and writing stories about the intersection of government policy and issues important to their readers back home. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of newspapers with bureaus in Washington fell by more than half from the mid-1980s to 2008. The number of newspaper reporters accredited to cover Congress fell by 30 percent between 1997 and 2009. The Center is currently working on research to update those numbers.
Political reporting, however, has not declined at all—quite the contrary. Campaigns, scandals, and fights within and between the parties are covered today with an alacrity that borders on obsession. Growing partisanship and divided government have made the stakes of each day’s political news seem immense, as anyone can see by watching the endless flow of scooplets from Politico and Talking Points Memo, or who watch hour after hour of commentary on FOX News or MSNBC. But while political news is everywhere, coverage of the day-to-day inner workings of government—the slow, steady development of policy in Congress, in the administration, and in the independent regulatory agencies, and how those policies are implemented—has become increasingly scarce in the media that average citizens historically have relied upon.
The opposite, however, is true of the “paywall press”—that is, high-subscription, insider-oriented news organizations like the one I worked for in 2009 and the ones I have worked for since. This sector of the Fourth Estate is booming, and its coverage of government has never been more robust. Trade outlets are steadily adding to their staffs in Washington. New entrants like Bloomberg Government and Politico Pro are experimenting with newer and faster ways to get their coverage to consumers. Long-standing trade publications are merging or being bought up for unbelievable prices.
The audiences for these publications are lobbyists, corporate executives, Hill staffers, Wall Street traders, think tank researchers, contractors, regulators, advocacy group and trade association policy wonks, and other insiders who have a professional interest in up-to-the-second news on the policy issues and whose institutions can afford subscription prices that run thousands of dollars per year. That’s not to say that trade journalists are shills for corporate interests. They are typically smart, energetic professionals with the same ethical standards and passion for digging as their mainstream colleagues. Indeed, with the mainstream press’s shrinking attention to government, trade reporters are often the only ones regularly covering important federal beats. But because of the nature of its business model, the trade press encourages its reporters to pursue the stories its elite readers most want, not necessarily the stories the public most needs—as I saw in my own experience covering offshore drilling.
The rise of the paywall press and the decline of mainstream media coverage of government aren’t causally connected. But the two trends coincide with a palpable populist outrage, in which average Americans are suspicious of how their tax dollars are being spent and observe Washington insiders operate at ever-greater levels of power and secrecy. The irony is that policy journalism in Washington is thriving. It’s just not being written for you, and you’re probably never going to read it.
A Senate gallery reporting credential is the gateway to reporting in Washington. Officially, a Senate press pass allows reporters to wander unaccompanied throughout the Capitol complex. Unofficially, it serves as an official press credential at conferences, agencies, and events around town. It is the solid-gold bona fide that separates the bearer from the public.
In pursuing this story, I analyzed the Congressional Directory from the 101st Congress (1989-1991) through the 113th Congress (2013-2015), counted how many reporters were listed in each bureau, and categorized each bureau as either a newspaper, newswire, trade publication, foreign bureau, or online publication.
What I found was that there are roughly the same number of accredited reporters in Washington today as there were twenty-five years ago, but that more of them are working for trade publications and fewer are working for newspapers and newswires....MUCH MORE