Redesigning a Washington Bureau
Scripps Howard’s bureau is forging ties with the company’s cable networks.
How does traditional Washington reporting fit in?
By Katrina Altersitz
Altersitz is a former AJR editorial assistant.
Scripps Howard's Walter Veazey, a senior editor, remembers a time when networks and newspapers were completely separate. "Now we've begun to incorporate content, so it's not necessary to distinguish between print and broadcast," he says. "We're learning how to meld two different worlds."
But is one of them — the traditional Washington news bureau — disappearing?
An evolution that began in 1997 with paginated feature fronts produced out of Washington — including a popular home and garden section — quickly blossomed into Scripps' version of synergy. The D.C. bureau is working ever more closely with the company's Home & Garden Television (HGTV) network, launched in 1994. In the process, the bureau's mission is changing.
"No longer just a news bureau, we are the multimedia content hub for all of Scripps," Peter Copeland, editor and general manager of Scripps Media Center, told a company newsmagazine last year.
E.W. Scripps' 2004 annual report to shareholders tells how the "Scripps Media Center in Washington D.C. — home of the Scripps Howard News Service — is leveraging the brand power of the company's popular lifestyle networks with its HGTV Ideas and Food Network-branded magazines."
In the spring of 2004, the company printed its first widely distributed network magazine. Today, the Washington hub produces one Food Network grilling section a year, an insert all Scripps papers are required to carry; an annual Food Network holiday magazine; and a quarterly glossy magazine called HGTV Ideas, which Veazey says could expand to six or more issues next year.
Copeland hopes the new magazines and other products will help convert his bureau into a moneymaker, or at least diminish costs. "If we could become a profit center instead of a cost center, then the company would value us more," he says. A Washington bureau "was always considered a legitimate expense for a newspaper company, but now no newspaper company is assuming anything is a legitimate expense."
Former Scripps Howard News Service Editor Dan Thomasson says the early changes he started, such as feature fronts, were "one way to hold off demands on reducing your Washington operation. If you make that resource available to the rest of the [company], it sustains you."
Why anchor such efforts in Washington, rather than, say, Cincinnati, where Scripps is based? Karen Timmons, managing editor of the news service and media center, says the bureau produces the magazines because it had an existing relationship with the networks. "It's much easier to centralize it rather than having individual papers deal directly with the networks," located in Knoxville, Nashville, New York and Los Angeles, she says.
Stories for the magazines and other products often use network personalities as sources or cite network shows. The Food Network publication gets recipes and tips from hosts; HGTV Ideas runs a feature called "HGTV Inspired Me." With the "brand comes expertise, authority," says Jennifer Sergent, editor in chief of the magazines and a former Washington correspondent for Scripps' Florida papers.
The layout is half editorial content and half advertising space. Papers get the magazine on CD, sell their own local ads and keep the revenue. Although the money doesn't go back to the bureau directly, Timmons says the products increase its value to the papers. She and the company also hope the bureau will make money by selling the new magazines to non-Scripps papers, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, which carries HGTV Ideas.
Copeland attributes his bureau's new mission to changes in the company. "If Scripps had ESPN, this would have been a sports magazine," he says. "Our company has shifted into a shelter company with HGTV and Food leading the way."
But some question what is being left behind. How does a traditional Washington news bureau fit into a media center?
Jack Nelson, who spent more than two decades as the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau chief, worries that it may not fit at all. "To me, as a serious journalist, I find it rather distressing," he says, citing an overemphasis on profit rather than journalism. "It'll hurt their news coverage, but it will save them a lot of money," he says. "And they'll pay for it in the long run."
"It certainly is not going to attract very many serious journalists to the Scripps Howard bureau," Nelson adds. "I'm sure that a lot of newspapers are looking around for ways to better engage their readers and keep their circulation up, but if you're going to do it at the expense of [quality journalism], I wouldn't even be interested."
Thomasson says he sympathizes with reporters who are seeing the bureau's mission change. "It's not easy if you think of yourself as a journalist..and you find yourself doing things like this, which don't really equate to why you're in Washington," he says.
"This bureau has a huge tradition. When Pulitzers meant something, they turned out a lot," he says. "That tradition is hard to lose, hard to let go of, [but] the pressures are there, and they're inevitable."
The number of reporters covering national news for Scripps dropped from nine in 1998 to six today. Copeland says those journalists — the bureau also has eight regional reporters who write directly for Scripps papers — are "trying to focus the efforts on the news side on having a bigger impact" by doing longer, more in-depth stories, such as a yearlong project on missing children.
Copeland describes himself as a "hard-news person" but says he was frustrated by the lack of play for the bureau's stories. Although the bureau still has some traditional Washington beats, including a White House reporter, it doesn't always cover the daily stories and tailors many pieces toward papers' localized requests.
Other D.C. bureau chiefs understand Copeland's position.
McClatchy Bureau Chief David Westphal says his bureau hasn't downsized or felt corporate pressure, but he and his staffers are very aware that stories "must be compelling and urgent to hometown readers." McClatchy has four national reporters, including Westphal, and eight regional reporters.
Linda Fibich began as Newhouse's bureau chief in August and already feels compelled to "justify what the papers pay to maintain us." She plans to modify beats and alert her newspapers to national stories they can localize. She isn't replacing three reporters who left this year, reducing the national reporting staff to eight. "You have to reinvent yourself every five or six years in this business," she says.
"I think all news organizations are watching costs these days, and we are not an exception to that general rule," adds Hearst D.C. Bureau Chief Charles J. Lewis. "I doubt that any Washington bureau is going to become a profit center."
But Copeland wants that to change. He hopes the new direction will ensure the bureau's survival. "We've been in Washington since 1917," he says. "We would not be here now if we had not made these changes..or not have as many people."
"Over the years, all of us have said, 'Are we going too far? How do we protect the news organization?'" Copeland says. "We're just trying to find the right balance. We want to pay our own way and cover the news." ###