- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Washington press corps is no longer a homogeneous gaggle of mainstream media reporters. It has become a hybrid coalition of unrelated tribes that ultimately could shortchange the American public in favor of special interests.

In the past two decades, the number of American news organizations accredited to cover Congress has fallen by more than two-thirds, with more shrinkage to come, according to an industry study released Wednesday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which warned that the findings “may shock.”

The number of wire services and newspapers with Congress-credentialed reporters has fallen from 564 in 1985 to 160 in early 2007, and more cutbacks have been made since then, the report said. “The number of magazines and general-interest periodicals fell 75 percent to 22, down from 89,” the organization reported.

In the mid-1980s, 71 newspapers from 35 states had Washington bureaus; now there are 32, representing 23 states. Anticipated cutbacks would further shrink that number to 25. And the number of newspapers that get Washington-based reporting from bureaus representing corporate chains has dwindled by more than half in the same period - from 551 to 262.

Those missing news organizations have been replaced by highly targeted niche publications that cover the environment, defense, technology and energy issues, among other things.

With pricey subscriptions and careful image management, these smaller upstarts seek a policymaking audience, and their numbers have increased by more than half since the mid-1980s - jumping from 138 publications in 1986 to 223 by 2007. Trade magazines rose from 172 to 214.

“Washington journalism has become more elitist in its attitude,” said Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly. “It’s become a more educated elite, so they identify with those above them, not those from below. This has happened without journalists being aware of it.”

Meanwhile, foreign news organizations have beefed up their Washington coverage dramatically since the State Department opened a foreign press office. In 1968, there were 160 foreign journalists working in Washington. Now there are 796, with the largest share of the influx hailing from Asia - particularly China - the Middle East and Africa.

“The picture they are sending abroad of the country is a far different one than the world received when the information came mainly via American-based wire services and cable news,” the study said.

A showcase for the trend is the Arabic satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, which opened a small bureau when President Bush took office in 2001. It now has 105 staffers - almost as large a presence in town as CBS News, with 129.

These seismic shifts don’t appear to be random, however. The researchers theorized that it was a shift in the “balance of information,” away from heartland America and into the proverbial marble halls of power.

“It concentrates knowledge in the hands of those who want to influence votes,” said Dean Baquet, New York Times Washington bureau chief.

Lawmakers “will not be judged by what they do for their states, but by what they do or don’t do for special interests. That’s not good for democracy,” Mr. Baquet said.

The three-month study was based on 60 recent in-depth interviews with Washington-based reporters, editors, publishers and other news executives in print, online and broadcast-based news organizations.

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