For the past 5 years, Jonathan Salant has been Political Correspondent for Bloomberg News, but more than a decade ago, he covered Albany for the Times Union and Newhouse newspapers. The Empire Page wanted to know how covering Washington is different than covering Albany (besides the traffic) and get his views on other issues related to political news coverage.
Empire Page: Jon. You spent a number of years covering Albany for the Syracuse Newspapers. What are your strongest memories from those days?
J.S.: I worked for the Albany Times Union (as Fred Dicker's successor) and then the Syracuse Herald-Journal, which at the time was New York's largest evening newspaper and is now defunct. As an afternoon newspaper reporter, I pushed the governor's office and legislative leaders' offices to give me advance copies of press releases and announcements for the PM newspaper, since we wouldn't be out until after their press conferences. Nothing happened between 9 am and 2 pm that I didn't get into the Herald-Journal's city edition. That was very different from today's 24-hour instant news cycle.
I remember Mario Cuomo's keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, which made him a national political figure and forced him into the conversation for 1988 and 1992. It was my first convention -- I've been to every one since then -- and there was an electricity that has rarely been duplicated. Then in 1985, I was one of only two New York reporters who covered Cuomo in San Antonio, Texas -- I drove from Albany to Newark to save hundreds of dollars on airfare -- and after his speech, he invited us back to his hotel room where he said he would consider running for president if nothing else to disprove those columnists who insisted that a man whose last name ended in a vowel couldn't occupy the Oval Office.
The biggest story I ever did was a series with Erik Kriss on the Public Service Commission. Shortly thereafter, Governor Cuomo did an editorial board meeting in Syracuse and announced he was replacing the PSC chairman. The most fun story I ever did was the North Syracuse sixth graders who got the apple muffin names as the official NYS muffin. And I still have fond memories of coaching the LCA softball team, and I regret that we were never able to defeat Cuomo's team, despite our best efforts.
Empire Page: Today you are a political reporter for Bloomberg. How long have you been doing that and what are some of the differences you've found between covering Albany and covering Washington?
J.S.: The biggest difference is access. I miss being able to go on to the floor of the legislature to talk to lawmakers, or walk down to the second floor and go into the governor's press office rather than have to sit at my desk waiting for a call to be returned. Even before 9/11, there were a lot of restrictions on movement. For example, when the governors came to Washington to meet with the president, I, then the Washington correspondent for the Syracuse newspapers, was waiting outside for an hour trying to be cleared into the White House grounds while Cuomo was holding a press conference on the White House lawn.
As a national reporter, access is far better than it is as a regional reporter in Washington. If people don't see your stories, then they don't return your phone calls. Bloomberg has worked very hard to get its stories in front of government officials and decision makers.
I've been at Bloomberg News for 5 1/2 years, covering campaign finance, lobbying and politics. I still use my New York connections for stories. It doesn't hurt that the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, Louise Slaughter, was one of the lawmakers I covered in Albany. I came to Bloomberg after seven years at the Associated Press, where I covered lobbying, campaign finance, transportation and telecommunications during my tenure there.
Empire Page: What do you make of the White House's involvement in NYS politics -- telling David Paterson not to run and discouraging potential opponents to Kirsten Gillibrand?
J.S.: It's not unusual for the national party to go into a state and try to avoid a primary, preferring instead to use those resources against the opposition party in the fall.
Empire Page: You mention impact of 9/11 on access. Another worry some people have is that newspapers financial problems will weaken political coverage, resulting in the public's being less informed. From your viewpoint in Washington, how's the health of our nation's political press corps?
J.S.: The real loss is the demise of the regional news bureaus that played the traditional journalism watchdog role. Copley, Ottaway, Thomson, Cox and the place where I worked, Newhouse, all have shuttered their Washington bureaus. That means fewer reporters to keep an eye on the lawmakers that those papers' readers send to Washington, and the issues of particular concern to those communities.
I was in Washington after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 35 students enrolled in a Syracuse University overseas study program, and for years afterwards, even after the national media had moved onto other issues, I never failed to ask an airline security question whenever I attended a press conference with the transportation secretary. For the community that the Syracuse newspapers served, it was still an important issue. While Syracuse still has a Washington correspondent, many other communities no longer have reporters in Washington keeping an eye on their representatives and asking questions of federal officials of particular concern to those readers.
There are also fewer reporters to do the kind of meaty, watchdog reporting that I believe the First Amendment was written to protect. Some of the great stories in Washington weren't written by the national newspapers. Keith Epstein, then of Newhouse's Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote a terrific series about how National Transportation Safety Board recommendations were ignored, leading to more deaths and injuries that might have been avoided had those recommendations been implemented.
A lot of voices have been silenced by cutbacks. Bob Mitchell, then of Thomson, which included such papers as the Altoona Mirror, found a congressman spending his campaign funds at Washington's most plush restaurants. Copley's Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of California Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Copley and Thomson are both out of the newspaper business.
And Newsday's Supreme Court reporter, Tim Phelps, broke the Anita Hill story. Newsday is down to one reporter in Washington. The paper no longer has a person covering the Court.
Empire Page: I guess we'll never know the stories that weren't covered, but that said, do you see any gains in the almost universal access people now have to information that years ago reporters had to file FOI requests to obtain? Does having so much information available make your job easier or harder?
J.S.: You still have to file FOIA requests for a lot of information, and each administration decides whether to look for ways to honor the requests or look for ways to deny them. What the Internet does do is allow us to obtain information from our desks. I rarely have to go to the Federal Election Commission offices any more or the Senate or House public records room. It's all online. And computers allow us to crunch the numbers and discover relationships that otherwise we would never have found. All of that information makes our jobs easier.
Empire Page: The Obama administration made a point early on of saying that they would improve transparency. Have they lived up to their promises? What could they do better?
J.S.: The Obama administration has gotten high grades from some watchdog groups for a move toward transparency, including releasing the names of White House visitors and instructing its FOIA officers to look for ways to release documents rather than to withhold them. While the White House has been very responsive when we ask them whether specific names are the people we think they are, it would be more helpful if they were identified initially.
Empire Page: With its announcement that it will begin charging some visitors to read its online editions in 2011 the New York Times has put charging for content back on the agenda. In New York Newsday is charging $5/week, the Daily Gazette has started charging again and other papers are considering it. What's your view of this issue?
J.S.: While I still believe there is a future for newspapers -- as Ben Bradlee said at the National Press Club, you can't take a computer into the bathroom -- we need to applaud any effort to find new sources of revenue to replace the classifieds and other advertisements that have migrated to the Web. Newspapers also have to be satisfied with profit margins that still would make supermarkets envious rather than the 25 percent returns they had as monopolies. My 12-year-old son has become an avid comics reader, the first step toward becoming a regular newspaper reader. But the papers are shrinking and cutting comics.
Empire Page: Any final comments for your friends back in Albany?
J.S.: Albany is one of the great places to work and New York government and politics remains one of the best beats in journalism. Even two decades later, I still have fond memories of my time there. And I hope the LCA softball team finally beats the governor's office.