News Those Who Pay Can Use

You don’t have to be a media analyst to understand that the current wave of mistrust in government and politicians has coincided with a long-term decline in granular media coverage of what government does, in Washington and elsewhere. But as John Heltman explains in an important piece in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly (made available online today as a sneak preview), coverage of the inner workings of the federal government hasn’t vanished or even declined: it’s just migrated to speciality publications that flourish behind paywalls where everything is tailored to the needs of the special interests able to pay very high subscription fees. Heltman, who works for one of the more venerable “trade publications,” as highly targeted government monitors are usually called, the American Banker, shows that what’s mostly changed in Washington journalism is who gets access to information.

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….

These numbers don’t tell the entire story, however. Trade publications and outlets have increasingly been targeted for high-dollar acquisitions and expansions, while mainstream news outlets are being bought out of pity and for fractions of what they used to be worth. One of the highest-profile acquisitions came in 2011 when Bloomberg—already a behemoth in the business intelligence sphere—bought longtime employee-owned trade outlet the Bureau of National Affairs. BNA, as it is known, went for $990 million.

So in effect you have two trains going in opposite directions on parallel tracks. Guess who gets left at the station?

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.

You should read the whole fascinating and disturbing story.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.