NEWSLETTER

February 2001 Regional Reporter

David Lynch Regional Reporting Award

Strong local stories help Freking win

By Cheryl Arvidson
Freedom Forum
and Joan McKinney
Baton Rouge Advocate

With a new president and a new party in power at the White House, a new Congress, an evenly split Senate and a House sporting only a razor-thin GOP majority, these are truly salad days for a regional reporter.

And as you file those great regional stories from Capitol Hill, it might be worth keeping an eye out for good candidates for the next David Lynch Regional Reporting Award competition.

The Lynch award is the only regional reporting award that deals specifically with coverage of Congress. On Feb. 6, Kevin Freking of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette became the first-ever recipient of the Lynch honor.

As two of the judges (George Hager of USA Today and Steve Green of Copley News Service were the others) of the first Lynch competition, we thought it might be helpful to give some insight into why Freking won, as guidance on both the sort of stories that are naturals for the Lynch award as well as stories that would be better entered in another type of award competition.

Each entrant in the Lynch competition was limited to four stories, and in the call for entries, reporters were urged to focus on stories that provided "insight into how actions on Capitol Hill impact the local community and coverage that provides a better understanding of the inner-workings of Congress, with emphasis on the local delegation." The guidelines also said special consideration would go to the quality of writing and the reporters ability "to explain difficult and complex subjects to a hometown audience."

Freking's entry consisted of a story on how and why a major local business, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., came to open an office in Washington and hire a top lobbying firm; a story on a local congressman and how he brings home the bacon != or is it pork? != for the local district; a story on the Bush and Gore competing prescription drug plans and the positions taken by the Arkansas congressional delegation; and a story of the impact the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 has had on local health care in Arkansas.

Two of these stories != the Wal-Mart lobbying piece and the impact of the Balanced Budget Act on hospitals and other health care services in Arkansas != were simply outstanding, so good, in fact, that they alone moved Frekings entry to the top of an impressive group of entries.

The Wal-Mart story showed how the nations top retailer has hired a leading D.C. lobbying firm, opened a two-person office and substantially upped its campaign contributions to key players after the company found itself on the losing end of some legislative actions. These steps reversed a long-held position of the firms late founder, Sam Walton, toward government: "Leave me alone, and Ill leave you alone." The company has learned, one lawmaker commented, that you "ignore government at your own peril."

The story then went on to take a detailed look at the increased contributions to political candidates, lobbying activities and the targeting of key races for contributions that have taken place during the 2000 election cycle.

Included was an excellent graphic showing the steady increase in political contributions since 1990, from virtually nothing to more than $250,000. By reporting on a major development affecting a local business and showing the sort of battles either lost or not engaged in during Wal-Marts days of being a non-presence on Capitol Hill, Freking showed readers clearly how money talks in the halls of Congress and how much a part of doing business lobbying and contributions have become.

In the Balanced Budget story, Freking took a tremendously obscure piece of legislation that on its face means nothing to the average reader and showed with specific examples how it has hurt health care in Arkansas. His story showed how a hospital that was $300,000 in the black when the law passed has rolled up a massive deficit almost solely because its Medicare reimbursements have not kept up with the cost of providing care. He also examined the impact of those Medicare reimbursement cuts on other health care facilities in the state. In taking a piece of legislation that was sold as a positive development for taxpayers, and then showing how cuts at the federal level can bite back close to home, Freking unmasked the shell game that often takes place in Washington when the topic is federal spending.

His stories were clearly and powerfully written, and he conveyed important information in an engaging and creative way. Most importantly, his stories went far to explain the workings of Washington to a local audience and shed some light on the way Congress works or doesnt work.

Some of the other entries, although excellent work, failed to meet the specific criteria set forth for the Lynch award.

The Lynch award judges are looking for work that de-codes Congress for an audience outside Washington. The key words are Congress and local. When you're culling your 2001 work for the next Lynch contest, it also may help to remember what the contest is NOT.

It is not for regional coverage of any and all news from Washington. Entries must have a link to Congress. The subjects covered may originate off Capitol Hill != for instance, a local economic problem or a new federal regulation that's controversial in your state. However, the entry also must explain what Congress is doing about the situation, or != at the very least != how the local congressional delegation is responding. Several of this year's entries were solid regional reporting, but they had no connection to Congress. They would be good candidates for the National Press Club's regional reporting contest, which rewards enterprise reporting on any subject.

Some other entries focused on Congress but didn't have the regional angle, or made only passing reference to the local impact. Example: an excellent series on the Democrats' nationwide effort to win control of the U.S. House. The reporter is a regional (and a fine one), but this particular series was not localized. It would be a strong contender in the Dirksen contest, which recognizes enterprise in explaining Congress as an institution.

The four judges for the 2000 Lynch award were all close friends of David Lynch. He was a good, solid shoe-leather reporter. He also was quite a character != an irreverent, wise-cracking pretend-cynic. It was very hard to lose David. His friends and his family, wife Deborah and daughter Samantha are very grateful that so many of you helped keep David's spirit alive by competing for the first David Lynch Regional Reporting Award.




What to look for in Bush's budget

By Jennifer Sergent
Scripps Howard News Service

Tax cuts have to be paid for somehow, and President Bush's first budget this year will probably attempt to sketch how, budget experts told regional reporters in the RRA's annual budget seminar on Jan. 29.

The nagging factor in answering that question is surplus management, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an interest group that advocates balanced budgets and protecting the Social Security trust fund.

"All the forces are in play for a run on the surplus," he said. "There's a

Congress and the president are in new territory on the surplus factor, said Stan Collender, a budget analyst with Fleishman Hillard. "There's no political experience dealing with this."

Richard Kogan, the former Democratic policy director for the House Budget Committee, issued this warning: if military and non-military spending continue to grow at the rate of the economy, there will be no surplus to speak of.

Regional reporters who want to trace the effects of the budget on their hometown federal programs should pick one or two specific programs and follow them all the way through the budget and appropriations process, Collender said.

For background, consider the following factors: the 1974 law that created the budget process as we know it was designed for an economy in deficit. "You've got a process to do something that no longer needs to be done," Collender said.

In addition, unemployment has always been the big factor used to indicate how well the economy is doing. No longer. Now it's interest rates != since 70 percent of Americans own homes, interest rates are more important. That's why tax cuts aren't resonating so much. Paying down the debt would reduce mortgages and interest rates, which means more than a comparatively small tax cut.

Carol McQuire, assistant staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, said personalities will play a big part in this year's budget process as Congress begins to analyze Bush's tax plan.

Look for the following things: Bill Thomas of the House Ways and Means Committee and Chuck Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee are trying to forge a better working relationship. Pete Domenici of the Senate Budget Committee and Kent Conrad of the House Budget Committee want a bipartisan budget resolution.

Contacts

  • Robert Bixby, executive director, Concord Coalition. 202-467-6222

  • Stan Collender, Fleishman Hillard, 202-659-0330

  • Richard Kogan, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 202-408-1080

  • Carol McQuire, Senate Budget Committee, 224-0642



    Options abound for regionals in NPC contest

    There are two good reasons you should enter this year's National Press Club awards contest.

    First, there's a category tailored to regional reporting.

    Second, James Grimaldi, the winner of the Robin Goldstein Award for the last two years, is no longer a regional so can't win again.

    The Goldstein award honors a reporter who demonstrates "excellence and versatility in covering Washington from a local angle."

    Other contests include the Washington correspondence award, which recognizes one article or a series of articles on one topic of importance to a city, state or region.

    If you've done any significant environmental, geriatric or consumer reporting, there are categories for those too.

    And if you're under 34, you can try for the Sandy Hume Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Journalism.

    Entrants need not be National Press Club members. All the categories carry cash prizes.

    The deadline for submissions is April 1. You can get an application at the club or on the club's Website:

    http://npc.press.org. And if you have any questions, feel free to call Maureen Groppe, the awards committee chair, at 703-276-5811.




    Is Air Force One worth it when the president comes to town?

    By Jake Thompson
    Omaha World-Herald

    So you hear that President Bush is headed to your state and you wonder, like many regional reporters, what to do and is it worth it to go along?

    In some ways it seems a natural fit for a Washington-based reporter to accompany the president back to your home state: you cover the news the president generates directly at the White House or indirectly on Capitol Hill.

    And a presidential visit is a big deal, even for states presidents often tour because they hold a bevy of electoral votes or bevy of people with eye-popping bank accounts.

    But it's not often a slam dunk for editors, who see the $1,000 to $2,000 or more cost per trip as exorbitant and better spent on sending an enterprising reporter to a foreign country or several of them after hot regional or national stories.

    Regional papers have taken different approaches in recent years, some not sending a Washington reporter along, some choosing to do so. Mine, the Omaha World-Herald, sent me in December with President Clinton as he visited Nebraska-the last state in the nation he touched down. The trip came not long before Clinton would leave office, but after the November elections when he might have had a downbeat impact on Democratic former Gov. Ben Nelson's Senate bid.

    It was almost worth it on its face for the novelty factor: Democratic president finally takes trip to heavily Republican state he was overwhelmingly defeated in 1992 and 1996, stopping first in Buffalo County, where he came in third behind Ross Perot in 1992.

    The trip was a worthwhile expense, I think, and I'll share what our paper did as a whole, how I fit in and some ideas on what Washington reporters can contribute to future presidential trips for their organizations.

    Larry Lipman of the Palm Beach Post noted that Clinton often visited Palm Beach County in Florida. Lipman didn't go along because he ran into a common problem. The White House wouldn't set up a one-on-one interview en route.

    The paper relied instead on its local political reporter and others writing color or related stories about local preparations.

    James R. Carroll of the Louisville Courier-Journal Washington bureau also saw Clinton make a number of trips to Kentucky. While the paper has given presidential visits front-and-center play, Carroll didn't accompany Clinton. "Not that I wouldn't like to, but the cost is difficult to justify without an exclusive interview != fat chance != thrown in," Carroll says.

    The estimated cost for him on a trip shortly before Election Day was $1,700, which the White House press office said could be lower if enough journalists signed up. It still never approached what Carroll thought was reasonable.

    Christine Dorsey of Donrey Media Group tried to get her papers to send her along with Clinton last fall when he planned a stopover in Hawaii -- who wouldn't ask? --But no dice. She wrote a story tying the announcement to another ongoing story and coordinated with the White House press office to make sure a local reporter and photographer were included in the press pool.

    On the other hand, Lolita C. Baldor, of the New Haven Register's Washington bureau, had more success with Clinton's frequent trips to Connecticut. Presidents Clinton and Bush, the elder, often made the quick trip there for two reasons: They went to Yale University and they liked to raise money in Fairfield County.

    Baldor didn't travel with the White House, but flew up on her own. The paper has had two types of approaches, a full-blown team effort with reporters and photographers or a smaller effort covering the president just dropping in for a fundraiser.

    Stories the paper has done for the larger effort include: color on local preparations, including items in the holding room (jelly beans, cookies, smart-looking blue drapes for photos); food served; local bands playing; crowd reactions from those who shook the president's hand or gave him gifts; protests; security and police preparations, their cost and who pays; private receptions; and reunions with friends and classmates (George W. is a Yalie).

    Baldor once got an emtional story by slipping into a private reception and interviewing the kitchen help after Clinton passed through. One woman gave him a cross because his mother had recently died.

    For the fundraisers, the paper focused on who's throwing them, the cost, lobbying issues the organizers represented, legislation they may have sought from the administration, and the food, especially when Martha Stewart entered the picture.

    Marc Heller of the Watertown Daily Times traveled to a Clinton fundraiser in northern New York. He says presidential visits there almost never happen, so the paper assigned him and two local reporters cover events.

    The day of the visit, Heller wrote the main political story on Clinton's speech, mixing in details of the airport landing and the motorcade, while the local reporters gathered crowd reactions.

    One note for regional reporters, it took Heller many emails to the White House press office to get into the traveling press. "I'm always afraid the regional press folks are low on the totem pole over there, and that only fed my anxiety about being forgotten," Heller said afterwards.

    Indeed, the day before he discovered he apparently wasn't signed up, but managed to get on board. He pleaded to get off the press plane and onto Air Force One, and later realized the several thousand dollars that cost may have eaten up more money than the national political conventions.

    "When you're a small paper, all you can do is argue that it's a once-in-a-generation expense and hope your editors go along with it," Heller said.

    Editors of course go along with their own ideas over the visit of a president, which can highlight their unusual skills.

    Consider this headline the Wichita Eagle reserved for a president from foreign soil when it welcomed in six columns across the top of Page 1 Mr. Yeltsin of Russia: "YO, BORIS!"

    In my case, I showed up at Andrews Air Force Base at 3:15 a.m. one December day after numerous emails to the White House press and travel office.

    The waiting area looked like it had suffered a terrorist gas attack: two dozen reporters and TV photographers were laying on the baggage claim turnstile, slumped into chairs or sitting on the floor, backs against the wall, all with eyes closed.

    Life stirred some as more people arrived. Still in darkness we were bused out to the press charter, a small jet everyone complained about as too cramped, and it was. We drove by Air Force One and I saw it several times more through the day, from afar. Like others, my request for a one-on-one interview was rejected.

    When it was initially announced, Clinton's trip was supposed to be one stop mid-state to speak to students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. But over the course of a few days Clinton added a speech at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha and a fundraiser at the Omaha home of Vinod Gupta. He'd given more than $1 million to the Democratic Party and to the 2000 millennium celebration on the Mall.

    Our newspaper has an afternoon edition, as well as several morning editions, so we dispatched reporters everywhere and ended up with at least six writers and four photographers covering the day's events. We also did several lead-up stories about Clinton's popularity in Nebraska and the preparations. I wrote an advance on what he'd address in his foreign policy speech in Kearney.

    I wrote a lead for the afternoon edition off of the speech. Others added color from along the motorcade route, from students and from a side trip Clinton took to a new attraction in Nebraska, a big arch over Interstate 80. One writer in Omaha pulled it all together.

    I wrote a morning story on the Kearney speech and a Sunday story on whether Clinton had been able to change the minds of people who disliked him before he came to the state. Our poll showed early in the year his personal popularity rating was in the low 30s.

    But the story that I got calls and several emails on was short piece I wrote after eavesdropping on conversations I heard during the day between colleagues who work for national news organizations.

    Contemplating the flat, cold, snow-covered prairie, one of them said, "This is what I imagine Siberia to be like." Hefty sheriff's deputies blocking traffic were dubbed "Hoss" and "Big-un." When the press bus driver asked if the assembled journalistic crew ever got to do anything exciting like cover a Super Bowl, the answer back was a deadpan, "This is as good as it gets."

    Several angered Nebraskans called wanting to know the journalists' organizations and names. I politely declined.




    Press Club, RRA join forces

    By Jerry Zremski
    Buffalo News

    The National Press Club is reviving its efforts to bring professional development programs to Washington's journalists, and it's enlisting the Regional Reporters Association's help in doing that.

    Incoming Press Club President Richard Ryan, of the Detroit News, said at his recent inauguration that boosting the club's professional affairs programming was his central goal. To accomplish that, he asked me to chair the club's Professional Affairs Committee.

    That's good for regional reporters, I think, because I've been a regional since 1989 and I know what regional reporters need in terms of professional development. And, as a past RRA president, I think teaming with RRA should be one of my committee's key goals.

    All you have to do is look at the attendance at the RRA-NPC journalism conference in early January, and you'll see why I think we should team up as often as possible. The event attracted about 70 attendees.

    To make sure that RRA and the press club work well together, two RRA board members != Jennifer Sergent of Scripps-Howard News Service (and former RRA president) and Lisa Friedman of ANG Newspapers -- have joined my committee.

    Our first event will be of key interest to regionals. It's a workshop called "Deciding What to Cover in Washington and How to Make It Engaging," and it will be held from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Feb. 26 at the Press Club's Holeman Lounge. Space is limited, and preference in registration will be given to Press Club members. But if demand warrants, a second session may be added. Call 662-7501 to reserve a spot.

    That event is co-sponsored by the Press Club and the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Bill Kovach, the committee's chairman, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, will facilitate the workshop.

    The event will be the first in a series to be co-sponsored by the NPC and the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

    Other upcoming Press Club professional affairs events include seminars on note-taking and the Freedom of Information Act.

    Bureau chiefs and regionals with an interest in professional development programs should feel free to contact me at (202) 737-3188, or jzremski@buffnews.com.




    President's Report

    By Carl Weiser

    Thanks to the RRA's Lolita Baldor and the National Press Club, our annual seminar on covering the federal budget rocked.

    C-SPAN not only televised it live, but put the event on the "heavy rotation" for the rest of the day. On C-SPAN's "Total Request Live" that day, we were number one, beating out a roundtable on utility restructuring. Seriously, it was one of our best-attended events - standing room only. The panel of experts was enlightening, and even occasionally amusing. No easy task when you're talking "sequestration" and "out-year outlays."

    Since our newsmaker ev ents tend to be some of our most popular, I'd like to hear from members on what kind of newsmakers they'd like to hold. The board has talked about the following:

  • Covering the Corps of Engineers; getting the real story on local projects.

  • Covering sprawl from Washington

  • Covering education and education reform regionally.

    Let me know what you think of these, and if there are others. Be forewarned: if you suggest a newsmaker, you may end up helping to organize it.

    We're also always on the lookout for good ideas for the newsletter. Have you done a good regional story? Share it with us. Tell us how you got it. Is there a good regional database or web site you know of? Tell us. Any odd stories of regional reporter woe? Let us know.

    The newsletter editor is Lisa Friedman from the Oakland Tribune. She's at lisafriedman@angnewspapers.net.

    As many of you suggested, I have been trying to make RRA better known at the White House. So far, I have to confess, I have not been too successful.

    I made a point of attending one of the transition briefings, just so I could introduce myself to Ari Fleischer. I didn't have much time, but at the end as he was stepping into an elevator I told him who I was, who I represented, and handed him some information on RRA and a letter requesting a newsmaker with the president.

    I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

    The next day, I got an unsolicited email from veteran regional Alan Schlein:

    "Carl -- I ran into Ari Fleisher last night, gave him a heads up that he would hear from you and that it might be a good idea for you guys to meet to talk about regional stuff and how he sets up his office. He said he would pay attention when he hears from you."

    Sigh.

    Making my job more pleasant are some of the recent emails I've received from members thanking me for emails or recent events. Those are much appreciated. Feel free to send more, even if you don't mean it.

    And don't forget: Your 2001 RRA dues are due. If you haven't paid, you should have gotten an invoice.

    You can send the dues to the RRA's address or directly to me or treasurer Maureen Groppe at Gannett News Service, 1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA, 22229. If you need a receipt, she'll send you one.

    As always, let me know of any concerns or ideas you have for the Regional Reporters Association. I can always be reached at cweiser@gns.gannett.com




    RESTIVE REGIONS

    Faith Bremner started work at Gannett News Service in December. Shewrites for Gannett's Colorado, Idaho and Montana papers. She comes to Washington from the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, where she covered the state legislature, water issues and the environment.

    Jack Torry, late of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Toledo Blade bureau has been hired at the Columbus Dispatch's Washington bureau. Jonathan Riskind has been promoted to that bureau's bureau chief.

    Ana Radelat also started at Gannett News Service in December. Radelat writes for Gannett's Alabama and Mississippi papers. She most recently edited Cuba News newsletter in the Washington area and has previous regional reporting experience with Thomson newspapers' Washington bureau. Ken McGuire, the Washington correspondent for the Lowell Sun has gone to the Associated Press where he'll be covering Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

    George Stuteville, the longtime Washington correspondent for the Indianapolis Star, has returned to Indiana, where he will run the paper's southern Indiana bureau out of Bloomington. The Star has closed its bureau here in the wake of its purchase by Gannett, and Gannett News Service will be handling the paper's D.C. coverage.

    Raju Chebium, of CNN.com, recently was hired at Gannett News Service to cover North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. At CNN.com, he covered the Supreme Court. Before that, he was a reporter at the Associated Press in Baltimore and Miami.

    Got news? call Jessica Wehrman at (202)408-2705 or send it to wehrmanj@shns.com




    Web Link

    After for Florida Follies, here are some Web sites that might help you with stories about fixing problems with the countrys voting system. Dont forget to check in with congressional committees, political party sites and interest groups, such as the NAACP.

    http://www.igc.apc.org/cvd/
    The Center for Voting and Democracy is a nonprofit in Takoma Park, Md., that studies "how voting systems affect participation, representation and governance." Lots of basic information here for background on machines, systems and legislation.

    http://www.lwv.org/
    The League of Women Voters' site has information about previous voting reforms, including an interesting 1970 study on the Electoral College. You might also find a local source on the Leagues petition to change the system.

    http://www.voting-integrity.org/
    The Voting Integrity Project's site has information about voter fraud, voter technology, "early voting" and other subjects. The site lists problem "hot states" like California, Florida and Pennsylvania. (Note: The group recently won a correction from Salon over a story questioning its bipartisanship in trying to clean up voter roles in Florida and elsewhere.)

    www.naco.org
    The National Association of Counties has put together a national panel on election standards.

    http://www.stateline.org/electionreform/
    This page offers a quick way to keep up with news about election reforms in the states.

    http://www.netvoting.org/
    Resources on voting over the Internet.




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