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D.C. newsletters rise as newspapers fall

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KAI RYSSDAL: Ripple effects from the global economic crisis and the continuing problems of the newspaper industry smacked The New York Times today. It reported a 48 percent drop in fourth-quarter profits. Online ad sales fell for the first time. The McClatchy chain says it’s going to suspend paying out dividends after April 1st because of rising deadlines.

It’s the same story at lots of newspapers — cutting staffs and closing offices. But Tamara Keith reports a different kind of news business is alive and well in the nation’s capital.

TAMARA KEITH: Washington is bursting with news these days. But Gil Klein says it’s a dismal time for the newspaper business.

GIL KLEIN: Hearst, Cox, Copley, Scripps Howard. All of them have had terrific reductions or even eliminations of whole bureaus that have been around for decades.

Klein was a newspaper reporter until he took a buyout like so many others. He spent a year examining the state of journalism for a National Press Club project. He says most former bureau reporters covered Washington and their hometown congressmen closely. The bureaus evaporated right along with traditional newspaper advertising. But Klein says Capitol Hill isn’t a journalistic ghost town.

KLEIN: The halls are not empty. There are people in those desks. They are just doing a different type of job.

He says newsletters, specialty publications and trade papers are thriving. They provide premium information about the twists and turns of policy at a premium price.

At the headquarters of Inside Washington Publishers one of the publishers, Rick Weber, talks to a reporter about a rewrite.

RICK WEBER: . . . Comma, a move that may foreshadow, you know, tensions over . . .

Weber oversees the company’s flagship newsletter, “Inside EPA,” and several others.

RICK WEBER: Our subscribers read us because they have a need to know, rather than an interest to know.

Subscribers willing to fork out up to $1,500 a year include lobbyists and anyone else with a keen interest in Congress and the various federal agencies. Weber says that makes newsletter reporting very different from newspaper reporting.

WEBER: Our readers get excited about things like section 112R of the Clean Air Act. You know, I mean, they need to know. I mean, it’s part of their professional lives. So, you know, we cover the minutiae of how policy is shaped and implemented.

He says that’s why specialty publications like “Inside EPA” aren’t hemorrhaging like newspapers. And so far, the CEO of Inside Washington Publishers, Robert Harrelson, says even the recession hasn’t had much of an impact.

ROBERT HARRELSON: No layoffs. No salary freezes. We’re paying attention to costs, paying attention to what’s going on.

But Harrelson insists newsletters can’t replace newspaper bureaus that scoured legislation for pork and sniffed out scandal. They just do things differently.

HARRELSON: We’re just not doing the same kind of work that those people were doing. We’re not covering the same stories. And even if there’s overlap on the story, we’re not covering it from the same angle.

And the audience is smaller. As one journalism veteran put it, a congressman isn’t going to shake in his boots just because a newsletter runs a story about him.

In Washington, I’m Tamara Keith for Marketplace.

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