When Jerry Zremski started reporting in 2017 on the questionable financial activities of Chris Collins, a Buffalo, New York-area member of Congress, his investigative work was repeatedly blasted as “fake news.”
It even became the focus of a Collins fundraising effort that began with these lines: “We can’t let them do this. Another day, another fake story.”
But a few months later, Collins — the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016 — was indicted on felony charges of fraud, conspiracy and lying to the FBI. The indictment made reference to Zremski’s reporting.
In his ruby-red district, the Republican (who continues to deny wrongdoing) was re-elected last fall by the narrowest of margins and awaits trial in February.
Zremski, of the Buffalo News, is part of an imperiled breed: Regional reporters who are based in Washington and who serve as watchdogs on local congressional delegations and who pay close attention to how local issues are affected by the federal government.
The National Press Building was once packed with reporters whose jobs were similar to his. Every decent-sized newspaper and many broadcast outlets had a Washington bureau.
Consider one indication: About 20 years ago, the D.C.-based Regional Reporters Association boasted 225 members; it’s now down to below 70.
“I really wonder what Americans are missing, and what members of Congress are getting away with because, in some cases, there is no one watching them closely,” said Zremski, who was my colleague for many years at the News.
That kind of imperiled — but still essential — regional journalism is being celebrated this week, as it well deserves to be.
The David Lynch Memorial Regional Reporting Award, which Zremski won last year, was given Wednesday night to Dan Freedman of Hearst Newspapers for stories in the Connecticut Post, and to Sam Brodey, now at the Daily Beast, for stories in MinnPost. In both cases, they were reporting on sexual harassment charges within the congressional offices they covered (those of Democratic Representatives Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut and Rick Nolan of Minnesota, respectively).
The annual award is also a chance to remember Lynch, a well-respected and well-liked regional reporter who spent the latter part of his career writing for news organizations in Nebraska and Iowa, and who died of cancer in his 50s in 1998.
“He was a bulldog — a good shoe-leather reporter who was funny, irreverent and not easily spun,” recalled Joan McKinney, one of the founders of the award, a longtime friend of Lynch’s and a former regional reporter for newspapers in Louisiana and South Carolina.
The job, of course, is not just about investigating financial malfeasance or sexual misconduct.
Very often, it’s the unglamorous work of trying to get information out of federal agencies that may be far quicker to return the calls of national publications.
It’s the acceptance that — despite the importance of the reporting — it’s probably not the kind of journalism that’s ever going to win widespread attention.
And it’s the knowledge that news organizations that used to have big, vibrant Washington bureaus are down to one person, or no one at all. (That situation is true — maybe even worse — at the state level, too, where statehouse bureaus have dwindled dramatically as local news organizations continue to cut costs to deal with the loss of advertising revenue, once their lifeblood.)
Tamar Hallerman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will soon be the only newspaper reporter for the Cox chain working in Washington. (Cox’s broadcast division still has several D.C.-based journalists.)
At 29, Hallerman doesn’t remember when that bureau boasted well over 20 people covering Washington-based beats in depth, but she’s heard about it.
“People talk about the glory days, but I never saw it,” she told me. “It’s going to be just me.”
Part of the job, too, is dealing with the fact that a lot of people don’t understand what you do at all.
When Zremski tells non-journalists “I work for the Buffalo News and I’m based in Washington, they look confused — they don’t really get it,” Zremski told me.
And yet, the reporting makes a great deal of difference within its community.
Here was the first paragraph of his front-page story in Wednesday’s paper, written from his Washington home, which doubles as the paper’s bureau:
“Less than five weeks after President Trump vowed that his fight for border wall funding ‘won’t affect Buffalo at all,’ he proposed a fiscal 2020 budget with $8.6 billion in new wall money — along with a 90 percent cut in Great Lakes funding, the elimination of the program that brings Buffalo its largest chunk of federal cash, and the end of federal heating aid for the poor.”
For the community that borders Lake Erie, and has one of the worst national rates of children living in poverty, that’s big news.
Multiply that kind of reporting around the country. With far fewer journalists to do it, the public will suffer — and dodgy politicians will thrive.