McClatchy Washington bureau shines as bright example for online journalism

The past decade has brought the journalism industry some of its darkest moments. On the business side, management teams that grew used to local monopolies could not react swiftly enough to protect their market share as thousands of online competitors emerged. Revenue tanked, readership declined and layoffs became a seasonal task at many newspapers.

On the editorial side, many newsrooms blew or missed one major story after another, from the Whitewater “scandal,” hitting the snooze button on the global warming alarm, the emergence of al Qaeda before 9/11, the Bush administration’s phony case for war in Iraq, to the abandonment of mortgage lending standards that inflated a housing bubble.

But not every news organization blew it. Indeed, as journalism has suffered some of its darkest moments over the past decade, a few news organizations stand apart for their bright triumphs. On the Washington beat, perhaps no single news organization so often has gotten the story right as the McClatchy Washington bureau.

From providing one of the few domestic voices to consistently challenge the Bush administration’s bogus claims before the Iraq War (The New Yorker being another), to dogging the administration over the politicalization of the U.S. Justice Department, the bureau, and its website, have become the must-click destination for readers thirsty for clear, accurate, spin-free reporting. The bureau will publish this weekend an in-depth investigation of the situation at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States has been holding alleged terrorists, in violation of due process rights, according to a Supreme Court ruling this week.

I spoke with McClatchy Washington Bureau Web editor Jim Van Nostrand by phone this week, and asked him why McClatchy’s had such success, and why the bureau took the unusual step of launching its own, stand-alone website. An edited transcript of our conversations follows:

Robert Niles: Why a standalone website for the bureau? Why not just stick with the traditional role of providing copy for member papers and their websites?

Jim Van Nostrand: I launched the bureau’s first website back in 2000, back when it was Knight Ridder. They never had a website before that. It started out in that they had a dilemma that their content had no home. Let’s say you were a national reporter and you interviewed Colin Powell, and Colin Powell turned around and said, “Well where can I read this story tomorrow?” You had to say, “Well, you might try the Philadelphia Inquirer or you might try the San Jose Mercury News. You never could predict where or how your stories were gonna land, so you really were in a conundrum.

The first goal was just to give their stuff a home so that you could hand Colin Powell a business card that had KR Washington on it, and say, “Hey, read it here tomorrow.”

The reporters here are competing in the national space against the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times, and CNN and MSNBC. For a news organization such as ours, they found out very quickly that the Web helped them extend their brand beyond their local markets. Even if you were, say, a reader in Aberdeen, South Dakota or in Miami, Florida, where we had newspapers, and they may know that their newspaper is a McClatchy paper, all of a sudden with the Web, they’re reaching readers who don’t read their newspapers. We were finding, with columnists like Joe Galloway, and with the reporting team on the Iraq war and the lead-up to the Iraq war and that sort of thing, that they found the Web was a very powerful tool for building the brand.

Niles: How has having the standalone site affected the work done by reporters in the bureau?

Van Nostrand: The bureau’s reporting and the things that it’s known for – the pre-war Iraq reporting and that sort of thing, the whole truth-to-power stuff – aligns very well with McClatchy’s commitment to public service journalism. The two mesh pretty well. The ideals are the same.

Frankly, what you saw during the pre-war reporting leading up to that, some of our [Knight Ridder] newspapers didn’t run our reporting. It varied widely in the play that it got. Not only were you competing with the big brands of the New York Times and the Washington Post and trying to get noticed, quite frankly, you had editors that wouldn’t run some of these stories because they were too hard-hitting.

We’re a small bureau. We can’t tackle everything. The places where we’ve planted our flag or where we stake our claim, they’re finding that this national platform helps increase [the bureau’s] visibility, because our traffic is growing.

We’re now getting a million unique visitors a month, up from just more than half a million in January. With that growth in traffic and attention means that they’re getting noticed more than they used to be.

Niles: Which websites do you see reporters at the bureau reading on a regular basis?

Van Nostrand: Well they have to read the Times and the Post because those are their big competitors. We run into the same thing here that, say, Salon did on the Walter Reed story. We will break news, but until it gets reported in the other outlets, nobody notices it. Salon had the Walter Reed story two years before the Post did, but the Post reports it and all of a sudden things start happening.

In the new media world, there are new competitors. For example, on the U.S. Attorney story, Marisa Taylor led the pack all the way through that reporting. Neck-and-neck with her was Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. Depending on the story, it’s not who you think it might be anymore. You have the usual suspects, but there’s a whole new crop of competitors on these beats.

Niles: What do you see as being the biggest challenge facing Washington beat reporters these days?

Van Nostrand: The biggest challenge from my perspective is the polarization of the audience. You have an audience that’s used to now listening to only those news organizations that cater to their points of view. The whole Fox News thing, the whole right-wing blogosphere, the whole left-wing blogosphere. When you do hard-hitting reporting like we like to do, you have a large set of your audience that’s either going to dismiss what you’re going to say or agree with it out of hand based on their own personal belief sets. If you raise tough questions, regardless of orientation, people are assuming that you’re bias one way or the other. That’s not unique to us. That’s unique to everybody. That’s probably the biggest challenge we have at the moment, especially involved in a two-and-a-half-year long presidential campaign. We’ve spent a good deal of our resources planting our flag in the political coverage for the size bureau that we are.

Niles: How can, or do, you address that challenge?

Van Nostrand: You sort of have to be deaf to it almost, because if you think about it too much it will almost consume you, and you just can’t let it. You just have to trust your sense of smell, and go where the story is, and just sort of disregard the consequences. This Guantanamo package coming out Sunday is an excellent example of that. You’re going to have a segment of your audience that’s going to look at pictures of people with beards and turbans and say, “They’re all terrorists.” They’re not gonna read past the third graph, you know? You’re gonna have others that are gonna read every word of it. I fully expect a very heated response to this series, but it’s the kind of thing that you just have to pursue no matter where it takes you.

Niles: Tell me a little bit about what you would like to be able to do to address or provide a forum for that heated response.

Van Nostrand: We moderate after the fact. We let comments go live, and we have somebody looking at them. The time spent on that is significant for a small operation. There are things we’d like to be doing with crowdsourcing, with wikis. Putting those into practice has been problematic because you’ve still got to be able to produce multimedia and push breaking news to the Web.

One of our biggest pushes has been to incorporate good stories from around the McClatchy network of newspapers onto our site. You know the old argument between national and local sites is they want to keep the traffic, because local sites have their own traffic and revenue goals. We did a small experiment to work around that, where we will pick up a story from one of our sites. We’ll run the headline in the first three graphs on our site, and then link to a local site for the remainder.

It’s worked out fine as a compromise because we tend to get good traffic on the good stories from our local sites, and they get more traffic that they never would have had.

Niles: What if anything do you think that the McClatchy Bureau is doing, or Knight Ridder in the past has done, differently from others in covering this particular administration in Washington?

Van Nostrand: I can tell you from working with these folks that what they do differently is based on necessity. The term that John Walcott, our bureau chief, likes to use is that we’re the “skunk at the garden party.” We don’t have the access that the big shots from the Times or the Post have. We’re not on the first-call list. We’re not invited to some of the inner-circle type of things. When the Bush administration came in, that got even worse. We just didn’t have access to the high level.

So what happened in the pre-war reporting, for example, is that folks like Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay and John Walcott, they were talking to the rank-and-file folks at the respective agencies, the folks who actually did the work; the folks who were actually preparing the reports and reviewing the intelligence. They weren’t talking to the political hacks at the highest level. Those folks were telling them, giving them a different picture than was being fed to the national outlets. By virtue of having to do their reporting at the grassroots level, they weren’t getting the sanitized picture that other folks were getting. That made a big difference. We were consistently saying that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence was saying that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But yet our competitors were saying breathlessly, taking the administration line, that there were. It’s a matter of perspective; who were you talking to.

Niles: I’m gonna wrap up by asking what are the lessons, from your perspective, that online journalists need to know in order to cover Washington truthfully, based on your experience with the bureau?

Van Nostrand: Well, the lessons are the same as they would be for any non-online journalist. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Move quickly. Look for what is unique and interesting about a particular story. One advantage we have online is that we cam move quickly on a story without getting bogged down in background, like in other media, because we can link to that background information.

Ultimately, the same intellectual curiosity that drove us into journalism in the first place applies. We don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing everyday.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at