I think we’d all agree that Virginia has become one of the most important states in the country, politically speaking. In just five weeks, for instance, Virginia will likely play a major role in determining who our next president is, as well as which party controls the U.S. Senate (and possibly even the House of Representatives as well). Then, in 2013, Virginia will have by far the most important election in the country, with right-wing extremist Ken Cuccinelli attempting to become governor, most likely against Terry McAuliffe (or possibly Mark Warner) — and with important races for Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and the House of Delegates as well. As if all that’s not enough, we’ll also have a consequential General Assembly session early next year, with debates over issues like “personhood,” uranium mining, “Obamacare” and Medicaid (particularly if President Obama is reelected), and much more.
Given all this, you’d think that the supposed (self proclaimed? they ARE extremely arrogant, as we all know) 800-pound gorilla of newspapers in the region, the Washington (aka, “Kaplan”) Post, would at the least be maintaining its coverage level of Virginia politics, or even – if they were smart – ramping it up sharply. One thing’s for sure, you certainly wouldn’t expect that the Post would be significantly ramping down that coverage, in both quantity (see graph) and quality, right? Well, it turns out that your expectations would be wrong if you were thinking along those lines.
In fact, what’s happened has been a sharp decline in the Post’s Virginia politics coverage, both in terms of quantity and quality, over the past few months. What happened? Did the Post consciously decide to do this, or did they just lose key staffers and not replace them with anyone close to their quantity/quality level? From everything I can determine, it’s far more the latter (incompetence) than the former (conscious decision). I’m not sure whether that should make any of us feel better, but there it is.
So what happened? A few things. First, the superb Virginia politics reporter, both in terms of productivity and quality level (knowledgeable, dogged, sophisticated, etc.) Roz Helderman, left the Post in May 2011. Then, the highly productive and hard-working Anita Kumar moved on to McClatchy’s Washington Bureau in August 2012. Replacing Roz and Anita were Baltimore Sun columnist Laura Vozzella (who tossed “grenades” in her farewell column, pissing off many in the process) and former AP Atlanta bureau reporter Errin Haines (I’ve seen almost nothing with her byline so far…).
The results of this turnover to date? First and foremost, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in the quantity of articles on Virginia politics. That’s clear from the number of blog posts now (about 1-1.5 per day) compared to back in February 2012 (5 per day) or June 2012 (about 4 per day), let’s say. Quick math: that’s a drop of about 70% since February 2012 in the number of Virginia politics articles the Post’s been publishing every month.
As for quality, that’s a lot harder to measure, so we’ll have to wait and see, but Roz Helderman did a great job, and no doubt leaves a high standard to live up to. As for Anita Kumar, I had my issues with her reporting (mostly that it was inconsistent and sometimes sloppy), but she certainly worked hard, knew the players, and produced a lot of content.
Again, we’ll see what happens. But no matter how things turn out, what I have a difficult time understanding is why the Post wouldn’t have replaced Helderman and Kumar with top-notch, experienced, talented, knowledgeable, seasoned Virginia reporters like the Virginian-Pilot’s Julian Walker, or someone like David Sherfinski, Olympia Meola, Michael Sluss, etc. I mean, let’s face it, no matter how good you are, it takes time to get up to speed with a state as vast as Virginia — to the point where you know the players well, can pick up the phone and call whoever you need to talk to (and they’ll take your call and maybe even give you the information you’re looking for), have a nuanced/sophisticated understanding of the Commonwealth’s politics, etc. Given all those needs, what does it say about the Post that it hired two non-Virginians, with no apparent experience in reporting on Virginia politics, to replace seasoned Virginia reporters? Seems odd to me.
Finally, let me just emphasize that this is not a story about personalities, about this or that reporter and how good (or lame) they are, etc. What this is, to the contrary, is a story about whether a major newspaper (they’d like to believe they are the be-all/end-all) in the region has fundamentally fallen down on its core job of covering Virginia politics, at a time when Virginia is more important – and more high profile – than ever. For now, that certainly seems to be the case, at least based on the quantity of coverage coming out of the Post’s Virginian politics blog. We’ll see about the quality going forward. Meanwhile, while the Post gets its act together – or fails to do so – I recommend that you check out The Blue Ridge Caucus, Pilot on Politics, the Richmond Times-Dispatch Virginia Politics blog, David Sherfinski (an excellent reporter, even though he works for a paper that I’m not a fan of, to put it mildly), and of course this blog and other high-quality, independent Virginia political blogs and hyperlocal websites. I’d also point out that if the Post continues its (sad) decline in terms of Virginia political coverage, that would seem to open up the market to others to come in and do the job that’s not being done (e.g., shining light on shenanigans in Richmond). Or will important Virginia stories simply never get covered? For all our sakes, let’s hope that’s not the case.