A Short History of News Reporting in the Nation’s Capital

By Jack Limpert

1970s
Ben Bradlee was expanding and revving up the reporting staff at the Washington Post. The Washington Star and Washington Daily News also were doing good reporting. Then came Woodward, Bernstein, Watergate, and All the President’s Men—a sign that there could be money and fame in reporting if you found the right story.

A golden age at The Washingtonian, too. Lots of reporters for out-of-town publications were working in DC but few Washingtonians were seeing their stuff. At a Georgetown cocktail party I watched a columnist for the Los Angeles Times pull copies of his columns out of his suit jacket  to show people what he was writing about. Like lots of other journalists he saw The Washingtonian as a place to get published and noticed. Freelancers like Kitty Kelley seemed ready to kill for a chance to get visibility and they were willing to do good reporting. Other bylines: Frank Rich, Tom Shales, Art Buchwald, Brit Hume, Doug Kiker, Larry L. King, Chuck Stone, Robert Samuelson, Maury Povich, Johnny Apple, Nina Totenberg, George V. Higgins, Simon Winchester,  Randall Kennedy, and Roger Rosenblatt. Lots of good reporters and writers in Washington, not many outlets for their work.

1980s
Charlie McDowell, Washington correspondent for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was one of DC’s best reporters and writers, and he had done good pieces for the magazine. I called him with a story idea and he asked how much he’d get paid. I  told him $1500 and he said, “Jack, now that I’m on Washington Week in Review I’m doing a lot of speaking at colleges and they pay me at least $1,500 and I only have to talk for an hour. I’m not going to work two weeks on a story and get $1,500 for it.”

Also part of the parade onto TV and the lecture circuit were Bob Novak, Jack Germond, Fred Barnes, and many others. Couldn’t blame them for liking the money and the exposure, but it didn’t allow as much time for reporting.

1990s
Still lots of good reporters and writers looking for a place to get published—Washingtonian bylines included Ward Just, Pat Conroy, Chris Mathews, Wolf Blitzer, Robert Hughes, Daniel Boorstin, and others. But the journalism landscape was shifting a little more, probably because of the ever growing impact of TV.

In New York, at the National Magazine Awards, I shared a cab with Oz Elliott, who had edited Newsweek for 15 years and was then teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He bemoaned what he saw as a shift toward more attitude in journalism—he said journalists were finding that writing with attitude was easier and got more reaction than writing a solid story based on good reporting.

2000s
The arrival of broadband (goodbye AOL), Google, iMacs, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter—by 2005 the journalism world was really changing. Ad money accelerated away from print—newspaper stocks began to dive, editors and writers were laid off. Good reporting, especially at places like city halls, state capitals, and the nation’s capital, was harder to find.

Now Apple is worth $620 billion, Google $225 billion, the New York Times Company $1 billion. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, which aggregates news from all over the print world, recently gave a speech bemoaning the decline of investigative reporting but didn’t suggest that Google might pay for it.

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