Why the Disappearance of Regional News Hurts America

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act grab headlines, but Congress does thousands of things a year.

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North Carolina has a Republican and a Democrat representing them in the U.S. Senate. According to a Washington Post analysis , Sen. Richard Burr votes with the Republican leadership 94 percent of the time and Sen. Kay Hagan votes with the Democratic leadership 90 percent of the time.

Yet on Saturday when the Senate voted on two key pieces of legislation important to both their leaders and their bases, both Burr and Hagan bucked party lines. Burr voted for the repeal of "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell." Hagan voted against the DREAM Act, a measure which would have given a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants.

[Read more about immigration reform.]

The voters of North Carolina, however, would be forgiven if they didn’t realize their elected officials took principled votes, and rejected their leadership. Of the three major daily papers in the state, not one had a story about the votes by their senators. While the wire stories they ran in some cases mentioned the votes by Burr and Hagan, nothing special was written about the votes against party leadership as it related to their elected representative.

Hagan came to Washington after I was laid off from the Winston-Salem Journal so I can’t speak to her style when it comes to dealing with the press. My guess is she has to be an improvement over her predecessor Elizabeth Dole, who avoided the press in all forms (local and national) like the plague. [See who donates money to Hagan.]

Burr however was always willing to talk to local press, often eschewing national reporters in favor of the hometown paper. Saturday would have been a great day to ask him why he voted against his party? He just won his re-election comfortably so he didn’t need to appear moderate just to placate some undecided voters.[See who gives money to Burr.]

Burr’s vote even caught his colleagues by surprise, with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine telling Politico she hadn’t even thought to lobby him. But if a local reporter had been there for the vote, or in the days leading to the vote, chances are he or she would have asked.

No one reads newspapers anymore, so the saying goes. And with 24/7 cable access finding a local angle to a national story is somewhat challenging for both editors at home and reporters on the hill trying to rise above the noise--especially when many senators and representatives would rather talk to CNN or Fox News. As a press secretary told me once when I complained about his boss’ lack of interest in talking to me over the cable outlets, “voters in Winston-Salem watch cable more than they read your paper.”

Maybe. But a regional reporter can dig deeper than the 30 second sound bite the official is likely to offer and can take the time required to get the member off script and beyond the programmed message. When then-Rep. Charles Taylor, a Republican from North Carolina, threatened to hold up funding for a 9/11 Memorial, he spoke to two reporters--the one from ABC and me. ABC got less than five minutes of his time. As a regional, I got more than an hour--and a front page story to boot.

Without local reporters on the hill monitoring how members vote, how are voters going to know how their leaders are voting when it’s not an election year? Furthermore, while issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act are sexy and grab headlines, Congress does literally thousands of things a year that affect everyone from Algona, Washington to Yemassee, South Carolina, and everyone in between. Without regional reporters, who will cover them? How will these men and women be held accountable? [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about 'don't ask, don't tell.]

Much has been written and will be written about the Great Recession and the changing American landscape when it comes to jobs. Many have been shipped overseas. But many too have been lost for what seems like forever. Ten years from now when we as a nation are out of this economic mess, unless regional reporters have made a comeback on Capitol Hill, in many ways that count the country will be worse off than it was before.

Looking back on Saturday, I would have liked the chance to ask Burr and Hagan about their votes. Is Hagan worried about 2014 already? Is Burr beginning to moderate his views? Is she worried about retribution from liberal voters who helped elect her? And is he concerned conservatives who voted just last month will hold a grudge six years down the road? Over time these questions may get answered, but who does the asking is anyone’s guess.

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  • See editorial cartoons on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"