In parts of Montgomery County, it’s easy to find residents who think—no, know—they live in the center of the world. These days, if any of them are reading the Washington Examiner, they may well find some evidence.
That’s because the Examiner has now assigned two Maryland and Montgomery County reporters, Hayley Peterson and Brian Hughes, to alternate their coverage of the suburbs and Annapolis with coverage of the White House. When the paper’s former White House reporter, Julie Mason, left to go to Politico, editors decided Barack Obama may as well be Ike Leggett.
“We decided that Hayley and Brian had been doing such a terrific job that they were ready to take on something bigger,” says editor Stephen G. Smith. “We couldn’t afford to take them both out of Maryland, and we need that local coverage… We just think it’s really important to show that if people do well here, we don’t have to go outside the paper to bring in people who succeed in important beats.”
So one week, Peterson covers 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and Hughes covers Maryland. The next week, they swap.
“This is not a temporary thing—this is the way we’re filling the White House [beat],” Smith says. “We’re not looking for a White House correspondent or anything like that.”
Taking on a demanding beat with lots of breaking news and the need to build sources—like either Maryland or the White House—and juggling it with a completely different job that has no overlap sounds like a recipe for overstretched reporters. Having once covered suburbs (albeit in Philadelphia), and then later covered the White House, I told Smith it seemed like a tough assignment to do both at the same time. But Smith isn’t worried: “We all figure that just reorienting to Maryland, you can’t help but lose the thread a little bit. We understand that.”
That’s because, at the Examiner, they’re dealing with a whole different caliber of reporter, Smith says. “Young reporters today are so far ahead of where I was when I came out of school, because they’ve done all these internships and worked for extremely good college papers,” he tells me. In fact, once the school year ends, the Examiner will have another new reporter starting on the local staff, in part to help offset the time Peterson and Hughes are spending at the White House.
Some Examiner staffers, none of whom wanted to be quoted complaining about the paper, have been grumbling privately about the arrangement—which, despite Smith’s explanation, seems like it has more to do with budgets than college internships. After all, why spend the money to hire—and pay—a new White House reporter when you can just throw someone else into the job part time? But it could wind up looking prescient, if Martin O’Malley runs for president one day.