The Incredible Shrinking DC Bureaus

Next time your crotchety neighbor growls that “All the news from Washington seems the same,” he’ll be on to something. Just days after shuffling editors and announcing job cuts at Newsday, the Tribune Company has said it will consolidate the D.C. operations of the papers it owns.

That move will affect reporters and readers of Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the Hartford Courant, the Daily Press of southeastern Virginia, and the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. Tribune also owns the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Advocate of Stamford, Conn., and the Greenwich (Conn.) Time.

In a statement, Tribune Publishing president Jack Fuller said the operations would be relocated to “one state-of-the-art facility” in January 2006.

“The purpose of the restructuring is to minimize repetition in editorial coverage, increase the communication and cooperation among our newspapers, and reduce expenses,” Fuller said. “As part of that process, each of our newspapers is reviewing how best to staff the bureau to meet the needs of readers in the local communities we serve.”

The phrase “minimize repetition in editorial coverage” is none-too-subtle code for reducing competition: whittling down the number of different papers covering particular events, departments and officials.

Tribune Company finances point to why Fuller wants to “reduce expenses.” The firm’s third quarter earnings-per-share were off 30 percent from a year earlier, due partly to the $55 million set aside to settle claims over the circulation scandal at Newsday and Hoy (earlier, $35 million was earmarked for that purpose). The earnings statment also had Tribune chairman, president and CEO Dennis FitzSimons citing “an uneven economy and soft advertising environment.”

Several of the Tribune titles (the Tribune, Courant, Morning Call, Daily Press, and Sentinel) already share a G Street office building in Washington. The Sun, the Times, and Newsday run their own shops. The size of D.C. teams varies: In the past month, no less than 11 reporters have filed from Newsday‘s Washington bureau, but the Morning Call has but a lone reporter in the nation’s capital.

There already is some sharing of D.C. reporting among the Tribune papers. The Sun ran a Nov. 12 piece about the fight for Falluja by Newsday‘s Craig Gordon and a Nov. 3 piece on the presidential race by Sentinel reporters and John Kennedy Tamara Lytle. On November 14 the Courant printed a piece by Newsday‘s Knut Royce about changes at the CIA.

And, of course, Tribune Company reporters often cover the same events. The coverage is hardly carbon-copied, however. In reporting on the resignation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Sun‘s Laura Sullivan dubbed him “one of the most divisive attorneys general in decades.” The Tribune‘s Andrew Zajac and William Neikirk rifled through several “terrorism” cases in which courts found far less connection between defendants and outlawed groups than Ashcroft alleged. In Newsday, Tom Brune let both Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, and former Ashcroft assistant Viet Dinh weigh in on the AG’s legacy.

The consolidation plan is not the first sign of tough times at Tribune papers, where job cuts have already taken their toll this year. The Los Angeles Times, which took home five 2004 Pulitzers, cut 160 jobs in June. The Sun also sliced staff. Newsday laid off 26 people in January and more than 40 others in June; it now plans 100 additional cuts.

And of course, Tribune’s D.C. move is far from the first to “minimize repetition” in the news industry. For years, critics from Columbia Journalism Review to watchdog Robert McChesney have pointed to a simple truth: Consolidation means fewer voices, and fewer voices mean fewer views.

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