Who's minding the story in D.C.? Strib takes issues with McCollum's departures email

When U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum sent out her weekly e-mail newsletter on March 5, the Minnesota Democrat included a farewell to the paper's longtime Washington reporters, who will continue working for the Strib's former owner, McClatchy.

"I want to thank Rob Hotakainen and Kevin Diaz for more than 20 years of service each with the Star Tribune and wish them well in their new assignments," wrote the fourth-term representative. "I and the rest of the Minnesota congressional delegation look forward to working with the Star Tribune's intern, Brady Averill, who will now be responsible for covering the news from our nation's capitol."

The sentiment didn't sit well with Star Tribune reader's representative Kate Parry, who received "a note of concern" from a reader about it. She called and e-mailed McCollum's chief of staff, Bill Harper, and said McCollum's words left "the misimpression that the Star Tribune will now be covering Congress only with an intern. This is not the Star Tribune's plan for Washington coverage."

Two days later, McCollum's office sent out the clarification Parry requested -- prefaced with a note that in fact the paper's intern will be the paper's only Washington staffer "until an unspecified future date when they plan to 'hire at least one new correspondent,' according to a Star Tribune article on March 6." The exchange highlights that the paper hasn't been entirely clear about when and how it will replace these Washington reporters.

And it suggests a larger question: in these days of shrinking newsrooms nationwide (including the Star Tribune, where 24 newsroom employees took voluntary buyouts this week) and Walter Reed-sized scandals making headlines, how will the Minneapolis paper maintain the "vitality," as Harper puts it, that is "critical to ensure that citizens are informed" until its Washington office is fully staffed?

Parry's answer to that question: Averill will be "bolstered by reporters here and our continuing access to Washington coverage provided by the McClatchy newswire," she wrote.

Plans beyond that aren't very firm. Will they hire two positions or one? Will one be hired on as the bureau chief? When do they expect these new staffers to be in place? Strib nation/world editor Dave Peters, who oversees Averill's Washington work, couldn't answer any of these questions. Managing editor Scott Gillespie did not return Minnesota Monitor's request for an interview, and Averill declined comment.

But Peters acknowledged his desire to have more reporters in D.C. "I wish we didn’t have this disruption," he said. "I liked working with Kevin and Rob. They’re good. But for whatever reason, we’re having to change gears and naturally there’s a little bit of a hitch in there, but we’ll come out in a good place in the end, I’m confident."

In fact, neither Diaz nor Hotakainen wanted to leave the Star Tribune either, but the pay package offered by Avista, the paper's new owner, presented them few options.

Hotakainen, the Strib's bureau chief who just started as Washington correspondent for the McClatchy-owned Kansas City Star, wrote in an email to Minnesota Monitor, "It was an easy decision: Stay with McClatchy at full salary or take a pay cut to work for the Star Tribune."

Diaz said he "didn't relish" leaving Minnesota politics behind, especially with the treasure trove of material, from Al Franken running for Senate to Michele Bachmann and Keith Ellision in the House, the Republican National Convention in 2008 to Minnesota congressmen chairing influential committees.

"This was not a good time to leave," he said. "But new management really gave me no choice. The alternative was to give back every performance pay raise I've received since I came to Washington in 2000."

The same financial matters that lost the Star Tribune its veteran Washington writers may affect the hiring of their replacements as well. The paper's classified ad for the job(s) named a $60,000 to $75,000 pay range. Is that competitive, considering the expertise and connections required of a D.C. correspondent, not to mention that city's cost of living and the responsibilities that come with the title "bureau chief?"

Tom Hamburger, a Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times, chose not to weigh in on those questions, but instead said he'd look to a broader issue, the "bleeding of quality" the situation in Washington suggests. When he began his ten-year stint at the Strib's Washington bureau in 1989, he was one of five reporters, one intern and four full-time journalists.

"This appears to be a sign of reduced commitment to Washington coverage by the paper," he said. "The most significant signs are the continued reduction in staff in the bureau and the failure to keep experienced people -- who knew what they were doing, knew how to cover Washington, and were doing an excellent job -- in their jobs."

Hamburger added that the staff he worked with continued the bureau's long tradition of reporting regional news while breaking national stories, like reporter Frank Wright's Nixon-era stories on the scandal over milk price supports, Finley Lewis' coverage of Walter Mondale's presidential run, and, more recently, revelations about the role of Minnesotans like Vin Weber in the rise of the modern conservative movement in the 1990s. (Hamburger didn't mention the story he co-wrote with Star Tribune reporter Sharon Schmickle about questionable gift receipts by members of the U.S. Supreme Court, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.) He's disappointed that the bureau is, even temporarily, reduced to a single intern.

"It's part of a general sadness that I find with what's happened to regional newspapers," he said. "But it's particularly insulting to those of us who worked at the Star Tribune for so many years. I worked there when the Cowles family owned the paper, and they were really trying to do a good job of maintaining the paper's legacy when they sold it to McClatchy. And it just hasn't worked out."

While Hotakainen admitted he has mixed feelings about leaving the paper he's worked at for more than two decades, he doesn't take anything personally. "It's simply a desire by the new owners to cut costs." He added that he suspects publisher Par Ridder and interim publisher Chris Harte won't be around in three to five years, at which point "a new managemenet team will come in and pick up the pieces."

As for the future, Strib editor Peters hesitated to predict when the Washington bureau would be fully staffed (its ad posted at JournalismJobs.com has a closing date of April 6), but said he's optimistic. "It’s going well. We’re getting good applications. I can say that much."

McCollum's press secretary, Bryan Collinsworth, hopes so. He said there's so much going on in Washington over the next few weeks that Minnesotans need to know about; topping that list, he said, is a key Iraq vote now in committee that will likely get a floor vote next week.

"You could say this is one of the most important times to have good coverage in Washington in years," he said.

Hamburger concurred. "This is an enormously busy, news-filled time in Washington: new Congress, an administration that’s on the ropes, a war that’s going poorly, the economy’s shaken," he said. "Those will still be covered. How Minnesota's congressional delegation responds is going to be covered less thoroughly. It has to be, not because the intern’s not competent -- I've met her, and I think she's very good -- but because they’ve taken away the experienced professionals who were covering it previously. That’s a loss for Minnesota."

Diaz's conclusion was more succinct. "Welcome to the modern American newsroom."

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

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