On a sunny September Saturday in Olympia, enough reporters gathered on the Capitol Campus to cover an international incident. Yet nobody brought a notebook. This was a wake, not a breaking-news event. An era of Washington political journalism was in its final throes.
For roughly 40 years, Washington’s statehouse reporters have based their Legislative Building coverage of governors, lawmakers and intrigues from outside the domed capitol. Reporters shifted from state office buildings into a pair of state-owned woodframe houses sometime in the early ’80s. To the best of my investigation, the exact date is neither in state records nor in the memories of the press corps’ survivors.
Now the state needs its outdated buildings gone for a new legislative office. By next summer, the blue home of The Seattle Times’ bureau and others, a former Olympia mayor’s house built in 1921, will be gone. So, too, will be the next-door building, a house a few years younger. On it, a few letters of signage cling to a facade that once honored longtime correspondent John White’s workplace as “The White House.”
The remaining reporters will transfer to a modest suite in the Legislative Building, six small rooms for news outlets that still cover state government full time. Such cramped quarters wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough when the press corps was deep enough to match the flow of news Olympia generates.
Former Associated Press editor Paul Queary recalled in his political newsletter that he saw on his 2001 arrival as an Olympia bureau correspondent that “both houses were packed to the rafters” with reporters from a dozen outlets. Many had multiple writers filing daily dispatches. I parachuted into the statehouse corps in 2015, fresh from Brooklyn to write for the AP. By then, counting those of us just there for the session, there were about a dozen writers — total — watching your Legislature, a reduction noticeable even to a newcomer. I wandered upstairs in the White House and encountered the long-empty Seattle Post-Intelligencer office, a stripped-out time capsule of dusty office supplies and empty desks.
This evisceration of the statehouse press corps includes both the diminution of city newspapers statewide and the outright disappearance of shops including United Press International, the King County Journal and the P-I. That trend is still playing out in state capitals across the country, to the detriment of the American public.
But there’s an ephemeral shift as well in this Olympia move, which is what drew dozens of us out to reminisce last Saturday. Even though the state owned both buildings for their entire existence as press houses, the walls exuded a vibe of journalistic independence — along with a certain funk that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray remarked on during a spring 2015 visit.
As a writer, you felt removed from the government in action a few hundred yards away, even with legislative debates blaring on TVW. The other side of the situation sensed the same territoriality. During my subsequent and brief career in state government, I was instructed to give the press houses a wide, courteous berth unless invited to enter.
That detachment will be a lost quantity by the time the Legislature’s 2022 session starts. By then, the reporters and the lawmakers will be primarily working under the same roof for the first time in decades. But the Legislative Gift Center shop now hawks cookbooks and stuffed orcas in the space that media outlets no longer need, a palpable reminder of the news profession’s steady shrink.
Better stories might come from keeping reporters so inescapably close to the action. Lawmakers will have to adjust to seeing reporters constantly present. But a unique-to-Washington ecosystem that generated a thriving journalistic culture across generations is departing, and deserves to be remembered.
Correction: This editorial was corrected to identify John White as an Associated Press correspondent in Olympia.