December 1998

Regional group grows over 10 years

By Pete Leffler
The Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call

Ronald Reagan, presidential cult of personality, was honoring Barry Goldwater, Arizona's political icon, in a White House ceremony.

And Sean Griffin, then a regional reporter for The Phoenix Gazette, the state's largest afternoon paper, couldn't get cleared in. That's because in 1986, regionals needed two weeks' notice before getting the green light from the Secret Service gatehouse computers.

"Thank God for C-SPAN," said Griffin, now a spokesman for Boeing Corp. in Seattle.

For Griffin, who had brought his pen and pad to Washington in 1983, it was an indignity of last-straw proportions. He shared his frustration during a softball game with regional Tom Brazaitis, now the senior Washington editor for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

The pair talked more over lunch. Regionals need better access and clout, Griffin said. And opportunities for professional development and fellowship, Brazaitis added.

That was the start of what became the Regional Reporters Association, a group that has grown in clout over 10 years. These days, officials from such agencies as the Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency turn to RRA for help reaching out to regionals.

Back in November 1987, more than 70 reporters showed up after work for an organizational meeting. By the following May, RRA existed in the simple all-volunteer structure in use today.

Organizers followed a "little yellow-covered book" on how to set up a non-profit.

Among its tips: Limit presidential terms to one year as a way of keeping ideas fresh and burnout low.

Griffin became RRA's first president, serving from mid-1988 through mid-1989. His editor, agreeing that promoting the plight of regionals was very important, let him devote up to half his workday to the task. Publicity and seed money topped the early agenda.

The National Press Club, National Press Foundation and University of Missouri Washington Program helped with meeting space, advertisements, mail boxes and an intern. The Montgomery Foundation wrote a check.

Major newspapers and trade publications wrote about the upstart group challenging the balance of power between official Washington and the Fourth Estate, and Griffin found himself answering nearly as many questions as he was asking.

RRA was up and running. Its newsletter for December 1988/January 1989 reported that the organization "has grown to 100 members" paying $10 annual dues.

President Alan Schlein ('89-'90) seemed ubiquitous in promoting RRA. His appearances ranged from extravaganzas sponsored by Congressional Quarterly to a chat with FBI officials in Philadelphia.

The organization's visibility and size grew: A spring 1990 newsletter put membership at 170. Meanwhile, RRA was tackling such topical issues as the U.S. Census and savings and loan bailout in addition to its regular programs about the federal budget and politics.

That year RRA scored one of its biggest coups - a presidential news conference. Outgoing president Schlein ('89-90) and incoming president Larry Lipman ('90-'91) welcomed George Bush to the Old Executive Office Building event. The August newsletter claimed 225 RRA members, thanks in part to Bush's presence.

RRA's earliest newsletter included a social column called Tidbits that chronicled the comings and goings of RRA members. It reemerged in 1990 as Restive Regions, a term coined by seventh President Pete Leffler.

RRA has attracted respected names in journalism. Steve Weinberg, then head of IRE, was among the first. Pulitzer winners Don Barlett, David Broder, David Maraniss and Eric Nalder all have stepped up to its lectern.

Under Lipman, RRA actively pursued another long-time goal: winning the tax status needed to attract donations from foundations and media corporations. The money would cover routine costs and allow RRA to fly in speakers for events.

Formation of the Regional Reporters Educational Foundation, RRA's tax-exempt sister organization, would consume many hours of time of presidents Jonathan Salant ('91-'92) and especially Paul Furiga ('92-'93).

Ironically, RREF's birth came just as the Freedom Forum teamed with RRA to put on the extensive, half-day professional development events envisioned by RRA's founders. RRA now had a friend with impressive digs, a deep commitment to regional reporting and great food.

RRA's first Freedom Forum event was a writing seminar in the fall of 1992. That partnership continues today with RRA's 10th anniversary event this month.

Meanwhile, Salant made sure that RRA and the National Press Club formalized a longtime relationship in a way that took many of the procedural hassles out of newsmaker events and opened them to both memberships.

RRA's computer bulletin board went up by 1992 but few used it. It was formally replaced in 1997 by a Web site,

By the mid-90s, membership and income sagged from its Bush news conference peak. President Tammy Lytle ('93-'94) reversed course with a crackdown on collections and intensive lobbying of individuals and bureau chiefs. On her recommendation, dues doubled to $20.

Salant, meanwhile, announced RREF's kickoff fund-raising drive. "Those of you looking for a tax break," he said, "here I am."

Leffler ('94-'95) followed in Lytle's footsteps and maintained a stream of events. One, at Freedom Forum's new theater, urged reporters to work "diversity" into their Rolodex of sources.

Sylvia Smith ('95-'96) reached another RRA milestone - completion of the elusive "Insider's Guide to Washington."

Ellyn Ferguson ('96-'97) says she inherited a smooth-running organization known to Beltway insiders. National campaign organizations welcomed the group's interest in hearing from their bosses about races and conventions.

"We tried to capitalize on some of the things that were hard-fought and hard-won," Ferguson said, echoing the basic approach of recent RRA leaders.

Jerry Zremski ('97-'98) erased chronic internal bugaboos - incomplete membership records and a lack of outside help. His paper, The Buffalo News, let RRA borrow an intern to help computerize files and minimize clerical problems.

Christine Dorsey ('98-present) presides over this month's anniversary event.

RRA anniversary event this month

In honor of RRA's 10th anniversary, the board of directors organized a half-day celebration and seminar to explore how the regional beat has evolved over the past 10 years and discuss what is in store for the future.

The event will take place at the Freedom Forum on Monday, Dec. 14, at 9 a.m.

Here's the line-up of the event, which is co-sponsored by the Freedom Forum:

The Freedom Forum is located at 1101 Wilson Blvd., 22nd floor, Arlington, Va., near the Rosslyn metro station. RSVP by phone at (703) 284-2809, by fax at (703) 284-2879, or by e-mail:

Did you know?

Former President's Report

Ten years after griping at ball game

By Sean Griffin

In one respect, you might think of the Regional Reporters Association as one of the unintended consequences of America's national pastime: baseball.

A century and a half after Abner Doubleday wedded bat and ball, there was a coed softball team in the nation's capital improbably known as the National Press Club Gnus. Against the magnificent backdrops of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument and other shrines of our republic - and while leaving too many runners on base - we held the first, highly informal discussions that led to the RRA.

My first conversation about forming such a group was with the Plain Dealer's Tom Brazaitis, who was a mighty hitter, was an incredible fielder and had a suntan that never seemed to fade. There were other conversations, but Tom was the first I can recall who suggested a formal association.

We were both aware that the nature of journalism in Washington was changing. From the time I arrived in the fall of 1983, I was surprised about how many newly arrived Washington reporters there seemed to be. Many of them, such as myself, were opening the first full-time bureaus for our papers. For a variety of reasons - from the economics of group ownership to advances in computing - a lot of news organizations began to send reporters to Washington. Between 1980 and 1988, the number of reporters with House and Senate press credentials nearly tripled.

We also were aware that the Washington establishment was still stuck in a older, traditional inside-the-Beltway mentality. The White House Press Office, for example, catered only to the needs of full-time White House correspondents. Regional reporters tended to have broader assignments - only one of which was the White House - and often were denied White House credentials. The White House had established an Office of Media Relations to meet the needs of reporters from cities beyond the Beltway, but only those reporters who also lived in those cities.

So on the day when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater - whom I covered daily as the reporter for The Phoenix Gazette - was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, reporters, editorial writers and TV anchors from Phoenix were brought in by invitation to cover the event.

So were members of the national press corps assigned to the White House. Of all the reporters assigned to cover the event, only I - the one who covered him most closely - was denied access to the event. (Try explaining that to your editor.)

The White House Press Office said "Go talk to the Office of Media Relations." The Office of Media Relations said "Go talk to the Press Office." Neither press office nor the Office of Media Relations knew quite what to do with this new phenomenon - regional reporters who covered local politicians on a daily basis, and who were more connected with the citizens of the country than their national counterparts ever could be. Nor did the Cabinet offices and the federal agencies.

I had heard similar stories from other reporters. Worse, I'd hear reporters complain that the only way they could get an interview with an assistant secretary of defense or energy or state on an issue vital to their readers was by asking someone in their congressional delegation to arrange it - transforming reporters trying to do their job into just another special interest seeking favors from elected officials.

Too often, reporters are more aware of their rivalries than their bonds. The Regional Reporters Association opened some doors, broke down some barriers and reminded all of us that there are times when we can put our rivalries aside and advance the course of journalism.

RRA's name

Here were some of the ideas RRA's founding fathers and mothers had for the official name of the organization:

and our favorite . . .

RRA: Then and now

Co-founder reflects on beginnings

By Tom Brazaitis
The Plain Dealer

The seed of an idea for a regional reporters' organization was planted at a lunch I had with Sean Griffin of The Phoenix Gazette in September 1987.

We agreed that an organization of reporters whose primary beat is covering Washington news of particular interest to a state or community would be a way to increase the clout of small bureaus and one-person operations.

"It would be a way to educate Washington to start taking regional reporters seriously," Griffin said. He pointed out that the combined circulation of such a group would make The Washington Post, The New York Times and other so-called national newspapers look puny by comparison.

The seed took root the following month at a meeting of 10 representatives of regional newspapers as far ranging as The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times.

The steering committee agreed on some general principles:

Starting with the charter meeting on Nov. 2, 1987, the organization blossomed. Griffin accepted the challenge of being the first president of the newly named Regional Reporters Association. RRA's charter was approved in May 1988.

Brazaitis is senior Washington editor for The Plain Dealer. He helped form the RRA in 1988.

Current officer looks back at past year

By Carl Weiser
Gannett News Service

Ten years after its founding, the RRA is an increasingly vital resource for regional reporters. With its own Web page now (, the RRA is a source of advice, news tips and clout for Washington correspondents.

This year, for example, RRA members got to enjoy newsmaker events with top officials of the Republican and Democratic parties; the head of the National Park Service; EPA administrator Carol Browner; Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater; Social Security commissioner Kenneth Apfel; Bureau of Land Management director Patrick A. Shea; and Education Secretary Richard Riley.

Members also learned of job openings via e-mail, got alerts to good Web pages with breaking regional data and even joined in persuading the House Judiciary Committee to provide more free copies of impeachment-related documents.

RRA members enjoyed free beers at happy hours, free cookies at board meetings, even free sandwiches at a Census Bureau focus group.

And finally, with the help of the Freedom Forum, the RRA celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. We're already looking ahead to our 20th anniversary during the Ventura administration.

Weiser writes for Gannett's Delaware and Pennsylvania newspapers. He is RRA's vice president.

10 years of leadership

Thumbnail sketches of the RRA past presidents

Sean Griffin, 1988-89

Alan M. Schlein, 1989-90

Larry Lipman, 1990-91

Jonathan Salant, 1991-92

Paul Furiga, 1992-93

Tamara Lytle, 1993-94

Pete Leffler, 1994-95

Sylvia Smith, 1995-96

Ellyn Ferguson, 1996-97

Jerry Zremski, 1997-98


Sharon Schmickle, a correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is leaving the Washington beat to return to Minnesota to write about biotechnology issues. Her position will be filled by Rob Hotakainen, a long-time education reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

Two States News Service Reporters have moved on:

Dan Egbert, who covered technology issues and wrote for newspapers in Ohio and Louisiana has taken a job with Satellite Business News.

Also, Adam Marlin, who covered Texas and Wisconsin, left for a job with Congressional Quarterly working on their "Politics in America" book.

Thomas Farragher, formerly a Washington reporter with the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, now works in Boston for The Boston Globe.

Finally, congratulations are due to regional Steve Piacente of The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., who won second place in the 6th Annual National Press Club Fiction-Writing Contest. Awards were given at a Nov. 16 Press Club luncheon that featured author Tom Wolfe. Piacente won for the first chapter of his novel in progress, "Hard Way Out," which deals with race and politics in the South.

-- Pat Howe,
Small Newspapers Group


In honor of RRA's 10th Anniversary, it's a good time for regionals to reacquaint themselves with our own World Wide Web site.

Put together and updated regularly by RRA Secretary Brett Lieberman, the site, located at, is a great place for Washington reporters to start the day.

For veterans, the site has links to a daybook, online newspapers and a number of government and political sites that we use most often. It also includes portions of our monthly newsletter that gets mailed to members, along with articles and columns from past newsletters.

For newcomers, there is information on RRA, an introduction to our board of directors, tips on how to join and a sampling of RRA's "Guide to Covering Washington."

Other great sites for Washington regionals include: Alan Schlein's Deadline Online page, at: The National Press Club site at: Reporters should also check out the Investigative Reporters and Editors site:

-- Lolita Baldor,
New Haven Register

Have a link to share? E-mail it to Lolita Baldor

November 1998 Regional Reporter

October 1998 Regional Reporter

September 1998 Regional Reporter

August 1998 Regional Reporter

July 1998 Regional Reporter

June 1998 Regional Reporter

May 1998 Regional Reporter

April 1998 Regional Reporter

March 1998 Regional Reporter

February 1998 Regional Reporter

January 1998 Regional Reporter

December 1997 Regional Reporter

November 1997 Regional Reporter

October 1997 Regional Reporter

September 1997 Regional Reporter

August 1997 Regional Reporter

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