Why Publishers Are Cutting Their D.C. Bureaus in an Election Year

An emphasis on subscriptions and changing coverage landscapes help explain

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Both the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal have cut or restructured their Washington, D.C., bureaus recently, decisions that appear counterintuitive given the coming presidential election later this year.

But both sets of cuts share a variety of strategic explanations, particularly a retrenchment to core competencies in order to focus on content that drives subscriptions during testing times for the media industry.

“If you run a publication covering the second-largest city in the U.S., you need to focus on that city,” said A Media Operator founder Jacob Donnelly, referencing the Los Angeles Times. “D.C. outlets like The Washington Post and the behemoth The New York Times will cover that scene better than you can, and you have a finite budget and an audience with more local concerns.”

The Los Angeles Times, which reportedly lost $50 million in 2023, is operating from a position of greater commercial urgency, and it laid off 115 staff members earlier this week. The Dow Jones group—which includes The Wall Street Journal alongside titles like MarketWatch and Barron’s—generated $494 million in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, debt and amortization) last year, according to public filings, and it has trimmed more modestly.

More broadly, as publishers consider more carefully what kinds of reporting generate and retain subscribers, beats beyond their primary zones of coverage come under closer financial scrutiny. 

The shifts also reflect a decades-long decline in the number of D.C. bureaus staffed by reporters from regional outlets, said Donnelly, as more get their news online.

The reductions aim primarily to provide cost savings for the publishers following a challenging year. In recent weeks, titles including Time, Forbes, Business Insider and Sports Illustrated have laid off swaths of their staff to compensate for their lackluster returns in 2023, according to two people familiar with the cuts.

The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times did not return requests for comment.

Retrenching to core competencies and subscriber needs

Publishers have typically enjoyed upticks in subscriptions, advertising revenue and traffic during election years, said media analyst David Cohn.

But for those looking to reduce costs, trimming back coverage in ancillary areas is a sensible step, said media analyst Merrill Brown. 

In particular, news publishers now pay more attention to the kinds of reporting that attract and retain digital subscribers—a line of business that has grown increasingly important in recent years.

Both publishers have core competencies in other arenas—the Times in regional reporting and Hollywood, and the Journal in business news and finance—that are likely better sources of return than investments in challenger categories, said Brown.

“Readers of the Times and the Journal are not placing subscription orders to read political coverage,” Brown said. “In periods of retrenchment, sticking to your core competencies is an axiom.”

D.C. bureaus decline while political reporting flourishes 

While recent cuts have highlighted the dwindling investment in D.C. bureaus, regional outlets have been slowly shrinking their presence in the district for years, according to reporting from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Publishers including the Tampa Bay Times, Omaha World-Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Denver Post all had Washington correspondents until recently, their disappearance a casualty of the shifting economics of digital media.

The internet has eliminated the geographical monopolies these publishers once had, and readers can now turn to any number of D.C. outlets for their political coverage, said Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy. 

Local outlets still need to ensure that their readers have access to reporting about how federal legislation affects their local government, but there are dozens of publishers covering the presidential election. Voters looking for insightful coverage of national races have, still, more coverage than they can make sense of.

“Does anyone believe there are too few people covering the election?” Kennedy said. “If anything, some of these reporters could be reassigned to cover other stories that are going untold.”

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