CongressLine by The Capitol of Newspapers

Several months ago my little company was purchased by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. During this period, not much has changed in what I do in collecting all the various documents relating to Congressional activities. Apart from very helpful and congenial new bosses, and a much easier time for me explaining for whom I work, things haven’t changed that much. This transitional time has given me the opportunity to look at the much bigger picture, beyond the documents of Congress, to the world of Capitol Hill newspapers.

Capitol Hill, including Congress, and all the people associated or employed in it, around it and about it (such as me) is a relatively small little world all to itself. Yet, for such a small little world, consisting roughly of 20 or so square blocks within Washington, DC, it boasts one a larger collection of journalists (both official and unofficial) than anywhere else of which I am aware. Capitol Hill has three daily (weekday) newspapers (not counting the city’s own major dailies). On top of these, there are dozens of publications whose sole purpose is covering Capitol Hill. There is a television network whose primary job is to cover Congress (CSPAN), not counting the news bureaus of every major television network in the world, plus all the other major newspapers. If you are a journalist, I cannot think of another place you would want to be. Washington, DC, is a news town, and Capitol Hill is its Capitol. Capitol Hill’s regular newspapers need some explanation however. They occupy a very unique position on the Hill and can be an important (and often overlooked) resource for Congressional research.

There are three daily (when Congress is in session and only weekdays) newspapers – Roll Call, The Hill and Politico. All three are excellent publications and have some of the best news editors and writers in the country. In fact, a who’s-who of top journalists at the major dailies and television networks normally would list them on their resumes.

[Editor’s Note: Roll Call, The Hill and Politico are available in both print and via their respective websites. Roll Call requires a subscription to read online, but the article abstracts are available free. It is printed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The Hill is free online, and also publishes two blogs, The Hill Blog and the Pundits Blog, and there is also a print subscription that is published Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when Congress is in session and Wednesday only when Congress is out of session. Politico is published three times each week in print, is available by subscription, and at selected news boxes near metro stations, such as Dupont Circle and Silver Spring (free for now), daily on the web – also free, and also offers email alerts to registered users.]

It is only fair, before I continue, to provide a disclosure note. I work for one of these news organizations and have happily worked for several others. Almost everyone in my little world works for one of them too plus probably have worked for several others. So I am hardly a neutral or impartial observer; then again, on Capitol Hill, no one is a neutral and impartial observer of anything.

While my new employer may wince at the statement, Capitol Hill newspapers remind me of collegiate newspapers in some ways. While all of them are of much better quality and feature top notch editing (something rarely seen in the college world), they report only on what is going on in Congress and Capitol Hill. They report on the floor fights, personalities, back-room deals, parties (both political and alcoholic), election prospects, lobbyists, new staff, job opportunities, and neighborhood restaurant reviews. They also have some very popular and humorous gossip columns. Everything that is going on within the 20 square blocks of Capitol Hill. There is no international news (unless some potentate or royalty comes to the Hill or Congress is debating some foreign issue). There are no sports sections (except for the Capitol Hill softball league). They only publish regularly when Congress is in session. There are no weather pages or lottery listings. They, like most college papers, are absolutely on the top of the list of reading materials for the citizens of the little community. Everyone knows of them, everyone reads at least one (and probably several) of them. These newspapers have only one purpose and a very, very specific audience – Congress and Capitol Hill. They are the most enjoyable newspapers I get to read every day.

These newspapers report on the specifics of life and action on Capitol Hill. Their reporting, like most newspapers, is a narrative approach. To a keen eye this type of narration is very important to a legislative monitor or researcher. Over time, patterns may emerge and the background of the momentous events that happen in Congress are put in perspective and within context of the minutia of every day Capitol life. Typically these newspapers have not had a mass audience, especially outside of Washington, DC, and that has puzzled me at times. Packaged correctly, I would imagine there would be a bigger audience. They offer a great wealth of information about Congress and how it operates. Congressional mavens of the world love them and as I said, everyone who works on the Capitol Hill absolutely reads one or more of them.

Compared to the national and global White House, Congress has always been pretty provincial. Congress is little world all to itself that periodically jumps into the world scene, usually in a crisis or scandal. The battling newspapers covering Congress document this little world extremely well. They do not go into monitoring every single piece of legislation, amendment text, or committee meeting. There are other sources for that type of information; they do however show a higher altitude look at the mechanics of the place.

The critical importance of these newspapers is that they are so close to the process that they are really the best first take on what happens in Congress (particularly on high profile issues. The shelf life for such information is extremely short; hence they are delivered early in the morning and have active websites updating stories. These newspapers provide the first account of actions and the even more valuable behind the scenes maneuvering. After that, the big national dailies such as the Washington Post and New York Times take over and report on the national implications of these issues. The more detail you need about Congress, the more you will need these newspapers.

If a major news event happened in a small town in Minnesota, the best initial reporting will probably be from the local newspaper, complete with all the local angles, and if you followed the newspaper beforehand, you would know the local flavor and players from the outset, as as result of reporting from the local paper. The major newspapers from around the country will eventually show up and report on the news event to the larger audience, maybe even using some of the material from the local paper, at least certainly following its initial leads. They will digest the information for a much broader audience and fit it into the weather, style, sports and international sections with the rest of the news of the world.

Beyond these newspapers is an entire library of periodicals, journals, newsletters, reports and websites that will attempt to piece together what is happening in Congress, either into a larger picture or into a specific partisan or policy position. Most legislative professionals use the newspapers and these other periodicals. They are distinctly different and I will write about these publications next month.

There is one element of these Capitol Hill newspapers that greatly appeals to me. In an era of extreme partisanship that has spilled over into the media, from Fox News to the New York Times, these little newspapers seem immune to partisanship. They report on scandal quite equally and they provide frequent partisan commentary (though none of it tarnishes the paper itself). Since they are the newspapers of record of the most inherently partisan institution in the country, they are insulated from partisanship in a way. This insulation is solidified by their regular reporting on troublesome heating ducts in the Capitol building and profiles of new Capitol Police officers. These are real newspapers with no axes to grind. The small audience and very focused beat are two secrets for being a good, classic newspaper, perhaps.

One may wonder how three substantial newspapers can survive in such a small community. There is no mid-sized city in the country that has three daily newspapers competing for readers. I, myself have often wondered too, especially since one of them only began publishing a month or so ago (Politico). What crazy economics exist only on Capitol Hill? Congress has always managed with strange economics and has also seemed immune from the normal laws of commerce. The newspapers are not that difficult to understand however. Like any newspaper, they live and survive on advertising. The Capitol Hill newspapers, to varying degrees, can boast to advertisers a very unique audience that is very attractive to advertise a message. Reading an edition of Roll Call not only gives you the news from the capitol, but also provides a cornucopia of advertisements from people interested in presenting their issue to Congress.

The little eco-system of newspapers on Capitol Hill poses an interesting case study on the role and economics of the newspaper business. The papers are very competitive, but are not categorized by ideology or partisanship (the advertisements handle that). An excellent reader demographic means they can afford to attract the top reporters and editors. They provide real news to their assigned community and are a real public service. It is this little ecosystem that produces very important news coverage of Congress that is not commonly appreciated outside of Washington, DC.

If you have no interest in Congress these newspapers would be merely a novelty. If want to know the environment in which Congressional decisions are made or your job is to know all the angles and to continually know the nitty-gritty events that happen in Congress, these newspapers are indispensable. They provide a daily, ground-floor coverage of Congress found no where else. I recommend that you pick up a copy if you ever see one at your newsstand (good luck if you live outside of Washington, DC), and enjoy the interesting reading and unique view of Congress.

Posted in: Congress, CongressLine, Legal Research, Legislative