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.
The division between the Senate’s two press galleries—the Senate Daily Press Gallery, traditionally home only to daily newspapers, and the Senate Periodical Press Gallery, traditionally home to everything else, especially the trade press—has also been breaking down. More trade publications are sprouting up in the Daily Gallery, while trades in the Periodical Gallery are consolidating into fewer publications with larger staffs. While that consolidation is most pronounced among the trades, it is true among all publications in both Galleries—the number of outlets in the Daily Gallery shrank by roughly a fifth (411 in 2013 versus 515 in 1989) and the number of outlets in the Periodical Gallery shrank by roughly a third (224 total outlets in 1989 compared to 160 in 2013).
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.
More recently, McGraw Hill Financial—which owns Platts, an energy trade outlet that has been active in Washington for decades—announced its bid to buy SNL Financial, a financial and business intelligence trade outlet that has in recent years expanded its footprint in energy and climate reporting. McGraw Hill agreed to buy SNL for $2.23 billion in cash.
Contrast that with the recent sales and acquisitions of more household names in journalism. The Washington Post was sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013 for $250 million. The Boston Globe sold in 2013 for $70 million. The international education firm Pearson sold its 50 percent stake in the Economist for $731 million, valuing the 172-year-old institution at around $1.4 billion. Even the New York Times’s market capitalization is about $2 billion. This demonstrates that the market is convinced of the business case for trade journalism and its potential for growth, and that it is not similarly assured of the future of newspapers.
Trade reporting has been in Washington almost as long as professional reporters have. The first reporters to cover Congress in the new capital city in the early 1800s were mostly working for local D.C. publications, but by the 1820s newspapers around the nation began sending dedicated correspondents to cover the federal government. Many of those early reporters also moonlighted for foreign newspapers and sent specialized dispatches to Boston shipping interests and southern planters who were eager to learn more about the national tariff for business reasons because the existing coverage was inadequate, acting as a kind of first-generation trade press.
There were also specialized trade publications in the nineteenth century, including American Banker (where I now work), which was founded in 1835, and the Journal of Commerce, which ran its own ad hoc postal service to get news to Washington in the 1830s. But the scene really grew as government programs and spending exploded after World War II. The demand for specialized coverage over a variety of new topics—environmental policy, health care, defense, education, transportation, and more—drove the steady growth of the trade press, which gradually came to take over the Senate Periodical Gallery.
“For years it was five or six newsmagazines that dominated that room,” the retired Senate historian Don Ritchie said. “All of a sudden it became dozens of trade publications.”
For much of the twentieth century, trade publications worked alongside newspapers with Washington bureaus, the latter providing coverage of federal agencies and congressional committees that affected whatever local industries might be prevalent in each paper’s city or state—energy and shipping issues in New Orleans, for example, agricultural issues in Iowa, mining concerns in Nevada, the space program in Houston, and so on. Indeed, one of the most successful trade publications, Congressional Quarterly (known today as CQ Roll Call after merging with that highly profitable insider newspaper), was founded in 1945 by the owners of the St. Petersburg Times as a way for reporters from local papers in D.C. to keep track of the complex goings-on of Congress.
But in the late twentieth century, just as newspapers were beginning to lose their foothold, the trades were entering into a new era of ascendance and consolidation. One of the big reasons for the trade paper explosion is the massive increase in lobbying over the past few decades. In 1975, according to David C. Johnston’s book Free Lunch, Washington lobbyists together made less than $100 million a year in fees. Thirty years later, they were raking in $2.5 billion, a growth rate ten times faster than the economy as a whole. Opensecrets.org, a website operated by the Center for Responsive Politics that tracks lobbying spending, estimated the size of the lobbying market at $3.24 billion last year, and that’s not counting the money many of the largest industry trade groups spent on advertising and public relations consultation.
It’s not just lobbyists who are willing to pay for that insider info. The amount of money spent on federal contracting more than doubled in less than a decade, from $206 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $537 billion in 2011. Another big customer base—one more squarely in the targets of populist outrage—is Wall Street trading. The sector’s growth in the 1990s and 2000s meant that there was a considerably bigger pool of potential readers willing to pay for reporting on the latest information on, say, regulatory filings by the Federal Communications Commission—intelligence that might enable them to make smarter trades on communication company stocks.
At the same time, the amount of primary information available online has exploded. The Federal Register, Congressional Record, all bills offered in Congress, and every proposed rule and comment are available online. Almost all congressional hearings are live-streamed on the committee websites, on CSPAN, or on both. Even press conferences with the White House and the State Department are available online. Everyday Americans might not know or care to look this stuff up, but for trade reporters—or all reporters, for that matter—the pool of source material from which stories can be drawn has broadened and deepened immensely.
With an almost unlimited amount of source material to draw on, a rapidly growing set of potential elite readers, and fewer competitors in the form of newspapers and newswires, it’s no surprise that the paywall press would blow up while newspapers faltered. “It’s just simple economics, it makes total sense,” says Nicholas Lemann, dean emeritus at the Columbia Journalism School.
As demand for well-reported insider news has grown, new players have entered the market. One is Bloomberg Government, a subsidiary of Bloomberg LP, the media giant founded by Michael Bloomberg and best known for providing market data to Wall Street traders via proprietary terminals. Bloomberg Government, or BGOV, was established in 2011 to provide subscribers—lobbyists, contractors, and investors—with the kind of fine-grained data and analytics about government that Bloomberg’s other operations provide about companies and markets.
The company also has free web products, like Bloomberg News and Bloomberg/Businessweek, with reporters in D.C. All told, Bloomberg has increased its news operations from seven correspondents in 1991—when it first applied for accreditation in the Senate Daily Press Gallery—to 193 in 2013, not including the additional 185 employees of Bloomberg BNA.
The same year, 2011, that Bloomberg entered the D.C. trade market with BGOV, another new player emerged: Politico Pro. The subscription-only arm of the upstart political news outlet Politico, Politico Pro has grown to twelve separate verticals—including technology, agriculture, and energy—and to eighty-one dedicated reporters and editors in just under five years. Each vertical offers three kinds of products: a morning news tip sheet modeled after the Politico reporter Mike Allen’s hugely popular Playbook; short and quick dispatches of news throughout the day, called “Whiteboards”; and occasional lengthier, more in-depth pieces. Politico Pro has quickly become a major source of revenue for the company, which projected in a 2013 memo that subscriptions would account for nearly half of the company’s revenue by 2016.
What Bloomberg and Politico have facilitated, to a large degree, is the efficient delivery of targeted news, and have sold that efficiency for a premium. But the news itself—and this is true of the majority of trade reporting, regardless of venue—would not excite the average reader. It is, in a word, boring. The stories tend to be about modest turns of the screws of government that would be of interest only to specialized audiences: a subcommittee chairman’s announcement of an upcoming vote on a tax provision affecting depreciation schedules for paper mill equipment; what a proposed tweak in an EPA regulation might mean for asphalt futures. The former Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum, who now heads the public relations division of the lobbying firm BRG Group, is an avid reader of Politico Pro. He describes its coverage as “not just inside baseball, but inside the baseball.”
A viable and growing market for such minutia exists because trade advocates and lobbyists are expected to know everything—and I mean everything—that is going on in Washington that affects their world. Several sources I spoke with admitted that they read Politico Pro’s morning updates before they get out of bed in the morning (I am also guilty of this). “These lobbyists live in constant fear of being caught flat-footed not knowing something,” said one editor at Politico Pro, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They want to know before everyone else. They need to know before their morning call with their client.”
By sheer numbers, this is the growth sector in Washington coverage today—hyper-granular coverage consumed mostly by business interests and their handlers. But the trade press also breaks news stories of broader importance before the mainstream press. In 2011, American Banker published a leaked copy of the Volcker Rule, a controversial provision in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that bars banks from making trades simply to benefit the bank, rather than its customers. Other mainstream outlets jumped on the story and passed on the leaked document, with varying levels of attribution (some didn’t cite at all, others cited the origin of the leak in the bottom of their stories). In November 2009, Stephen Colbert did a bit on his news-comedy show about business lobbies pushing back against rules barring child labor, citing as his source a story from Inside U.S. Trade, an international trade-focused newsletter published by Inside Washington Publishers (parent of my former publication, Water Policy Report). Last December the nationally syndicated public radio show This American Life did a segment about a company cutting its CEO’s pay that was based on a story published by the investment trade newsletter Institutional Investor.
Trades are not entirely passive in their ability to reach a more mainstream audience. Most have public-facing websites they can use to publicize stories that originate with their subscription services that are broadly newsworthy or enterprising. For instance, the Politico Pro reporter Jon Prior reported a story on Politico’s main site in September outlining how some of the nation’s largest banks and mortgage lenders are continuing to accept payments for mortgages that they later filed for foreclosure—violating the terms of a $25 billion settlement with the Justice Department—and getting away with it because of lax government oversight.
Unfortunately, some of the best trade reporting is never seen by the public. In 2013, for instance, Bloomberg Government published an astute analysis of an emerging conservative legal argument against the Affordable Care Act, months before the mainstream press took note. The story predicted that the case would go all the way to the Supreme Court. But because the analysis stayed behind the BGOV paywall, it never became part of the broader Washington conversation about Obamacare, and public advocates of the law were unprepared when the case was, in fact, taken up by the Court.
Ironically, as the trade press has gotten bigger and better resourced, its inclination to do longer, deeper enterprise journalism appears to be declining. That’s largely because readers of paywall journalism—like readers everywhere—are being deluged with news. “The information overload is very difficult to cope with,” says a K Street lobbyist who subscribes to dozens of trade and mainstream publications. “It used to be you’d get your information periodically, from Newsweek, etc. Now it’s instantaneous, a rush.”
To help their customers cope, trade outlets are delivering their products in shorter and shorter form. When BGOV first came on the scene, it was putting out long, data-rich reports on key policy issues. But when internal metrics showed that most customers weren’t reading the longer stories, says one former BGOV editor, the reports were reduced in size to six pages, then to one, with a couple of charts and a paragraph or two of text. Not all readers were pleased with the slimming down. “I actually used to like Bloomberg Government,” says a D.C.-based reporter for a mainstream magazine that subscribes to the service. “They had teams of quants writing plain-English white papers about issues.” But in general, concedes the former BGOV editor, the shorter-form content is “what the market wants.” The same market pressures are being felt elsewhere. An editor at Politico Pro reports that the longer-enterprise pieces he and his team produce (and are most proud of) are the least read, while the shortest products, like the morning news summaries, are far more popular.
In a concession to the market demand, National Journal, the insider publication founded in 1969 that is now part of the Atlantic Media Group, announced in July that it is ending its much-admired long-form print publication and moving editorial staff and resources to its “higher velocity” digital publications. But it has also promised to bring greater analytic depth to its digital offerings. “People are fearful of missing out, so they do want the nuggets,” copresident and publisher Poppy MacDonald told me, but they are also “looking for somebody to really put some context around it and help them understand that fire hose of information.”
The pressure of competition has also led paywall outlets to create business lines that serve almost as consultancies to their corporate and lobbyist customers. National Journal, for instance, earns much of its revenue from “membership” services that include specially produced D.C. reporting tailored to the needs of an individual corporation, trade association, or lobbying firm. “Break down the latest developments on the Hill for your C-suite and Board—and demonstrate your D.C. team’s ROI,” reads the Membership Services page on National Journal’s website under the heading “Corporate Government Relations Teams.”
Similarly, Bloomberg Government sales reps have been hawking new data analytics designed to help lobbying firms expand their business—showing, for example, which competing lobbying shops have recently lost which corporate contracts. National Journal, Politico, and other trade outlets, along with many mainstream publications like the Washington Post, also do a lucrative business in sponsored conferences, where lobbyists and corporate clients pay big money to rub elbows with government policymakers and their staffs.
Even with all its eyebrow-raising revenue schemes, an ascendant trade press is preferable to the only probable alternative, which is no press coverage at all (an increasingly common situation in many state capitals). And from my own experience and interviews I did for this story, I can say with confidence that trade press reporters are not brainwashed by the industries they cover or blind to the public responsibilities they have to find the truth and report it. No one I spoke to thought that a trade reporter held a distinct disadvantage over any other mainstream reporter to run down a great story and to have it make its way into the public consciousness. But the fact remains that on a day-to-day basis more and more information is flowing to Washington’s elite while less trickles out to the American public. And while trades vie zealously for a larger slice of that Washington Insider market, publications that appeal to a wider audience are either struggling to keep their lights on or leaving traditional reporting about government behind altogether.
I don’t want to be overly sentimental about the demise of newspapers, but they did at least make an effort to inform the public about the goings-on within public institutions. Through an accident of history, there was a unique period in the twentieth century when advertisers subsidized news gathering by D.C.-based reporters, who in turn gave readers back home information and insight about what their congressional delegations were doing—good and bad—and how federal policies were affecting the issues and industries most important to them.
Advertising—formerly the cornerstone of news funding—hasn’t gone away, of course, and it still pays for much of the mainstream coverage of government that exists. But it doesn’t buy what it used to, so mainstream newspapers and magazines are trying to rework their business models to stay afloat. The Wall Street Journal was among the first to put up a paywall for its stories on the web, and the New York Times reportedly now earns about half of its revenues through paid digital subscriptions, while still allowing free access to twenty stories per month. Other outlets like Slate are toying with so-called “freemium” models, where paid subscribers have access to certain content that nonsubscribers do not. And many publications have begun to bring in significant revenues via advertorials and other “sponsored content.”
Reporting about government hasn’t entirely disappeared from the mainstream press, either. Big national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal still do a decent, and occasionally excellent, job. Some newer digital publications have also stepped in to fill part of the reporting void. BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Slate, and Salon all have Senate Press Gallery credentials. And thanks to the internet, this reporting is available to anyone anywhere in the country or the world. But journalists at big national papers and newer digital sites tend to write for national audiences. What has not emerged is a class of news outlets that customize their coverage to the needs and interests of local readers the way the old bureau system used to.
Gathering news costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere. If there is sufficient demand for information, someone will gather it, as the rise of the trade press has demonstrated. The problem is that despite the struggle and innovation that has been taking place in the news media since the internet disrupted its business model, no one has come up with a profitable way to provide information about government to average Americans in ways they care about.
That vacuum provides an opening for outlets that peddle in the kind of bias, treachery, and quackery that we have always been afraid of. Conspiracy theory blogs, pseudoscience sites, white supremacy forums, and all manner of senseless bullshit are trading at face value because, for many, there’s no credible alternative. I don’t mean to overstate my case— deepening ideological rifts in America are not the fault of declining newspaper revenues. But misleading or conspiratorial ideas about government activities can spread more easily when the public lacks credible information to counter it. And instead of solving that problem, the market is directing more and more journalistic resources and talent toward figuring out how to keep insiders better informed and at a greater convenience.
Columbia’s Nicholas Lemann suggests that with for-profit solutions failing to materialize, some nonprofit media—ProPublica, the Washington Monthly—and semipublic news outlets like National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System have gone part of the way toward filling that informational gap. But he proposes a more aggressive, if unpopular solution: directly subsidizing news gathering with government funds. Lemann cites a 2009 Columbia Journalism School report by the former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and the Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson that laid out the case for how a government-subsidized news enterprise could work. News outlets—either established newspapers or startups or blogs—could compete for government contracts to provide local news for a specified period of time, much the way arts funding is distributed.
But the journalism profession and the public would almost never accept that kind of arrangement, Lemann said. “American journalists are so libertarian, that what I just proposed is considered insane. A research university gets a third of its funding from the U.S. government to conduct scientific research. According to the theory of my fellow journalists, that shouldn’t work. But it works pretty damn well.”
Richard Charter, the environmentalist who tipped me off to the lax regulations in offshore drilling just before Deepwater Horizon, said that for all the attention that disaster received, he feels that the public is no more protected from the risk of a well blowout today than they were when we first spoke in 2009. The Minerals Management Service was disbanded in 2011 and its duties split between two new agencies. A handful of safety rules, based on voluntary best practices already observed within the industry, were adopted. But the public seems to have moved on.
“Information is power, and how that information is framed and how that is transmitted—but more importantly, how that information is gathered and organized by the media—that chain of events influences public policy,” Charter said. “If public policy fails—and I consider the Deepwater Horizon blowout to be an obvious failure of public policy—then the consequences can be very great.”
I told him I still felt a little guilty about not following up on his lead back then, and I wanted him to let me off the hook.
“Deepwater Horizon is not your fault,” he said. “There was not really a place for it in your publication.”