Monday, June 1, 2009

A Window on Washington closes - March 26, 2009 column

WASHINGTON – Media General opened its window on Washington thirty years ago, three blocks from the White House. This week, the recession closed it.

The Media General Washington bureau came to life in 1979 during a major international crisis with a mission to untangle the capital for newspaper readers in the Southeast. It ends as a multimedia bureau during – and because of – another international crisis.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and captured about 70 Americans. The hostage crisis would last 444 days. The enduring embarrassment to the country – and President Jimmy Carter – ended with his defeat in the 1980 election. The hostages were released as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981.

In those first shocking weeks after terrorists attacked the embassy, the new Washington bureau chief, John Hall, wrote his newspapers’ editors from his second-floor perch overlooking 14th Street:

“It’s hard to concentrate on anything else during the Iran crisis. Iranian demonstrators staged a 30-minute ‘Death to the Shah’ protest right outside our windows a couple of weeks ago and a man carrying an American flag climbed a telephone pole until he was at eye level with us, looking like he had just captured San Juan Hill.”

Hall’s boss soon sent him and a photographer to Iran. Few correspondents were able to enter Iran then, and Hall wrote of facing a million people marching toward him, shouting, “Death to America.” He later reported from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Poland, Great Britain and Western Europe.

Hall built the bureau and I, happily, was among his hires. He stepped down as bureau chief in 2001 to focus on his column and was replaced by Gene Marlowe. I became chief in 2003 when the much-loved Gene passed away.

In early 2008, the bureau reorganized and adopted a Web-first approach. The transition was successful, and in addition to print stories, our talented reporters began producing TV packages, Web videos and an unending stream of online updates on

From a staff of 10 print reporters and an office manager in 1982 serving six papers, the bureau hummed this year with a multimedia staff of six serving Media General’s 24 daily newspapers, 19 TV stations and scores of Web sites. We spent most of this year covering today’s international crisis – the global economic collapse.

In 1979, it was hard for Hall to focus on anything other than the international crisis du jour, Iran. Today, it’s hard for me to concentrate on anything but the economy.

This time, we aren’t just covering the crisis from our window on Washington. We are part of the story. Media General decided a few weeks ago to close the Washington bureau March 27, joining the other media corporations that have taken that difficult step because of the decline in newspaper advertising.

We six bureau staffers are joining millions of others who have been laid off. This is my last column from the Washington bureau.

The bureau was hitting home runs until the end. Unfortunately, the company had a really bad 2008. The outlook for this year does not look much better and the company has had to slash expenses.

“We very much regret having to take this step,” Graham Woodlief, president of Media General’s publishing division, said in a statement earlier this month announcing the bureau’s closing.

So for the first time since the Richmond Times-Dispatch sent columnist Charley McDowell to the capital in 1965, Media General has no one stationed in Washington.

I am honored to have been your eyes and ears in Washington for 28 years, covering Congress and the White House. I have had the good fortune of working for a company that encouraged and backed the Washington bureau and me. I’m proud of our team of dedicated journalists, and I know they’ll go far.

My favorite assignments have given me the gift of traveling this great country, meeting and talking to people about politics and how Washington affects their lives. My weekly column has brought me many friends – and critics -- who have helped me think and write more clearly. I loved our conversation. I am grateful for a great run. Thanks for reading.

-- Marsha Mercer

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