Sen. Todd Young at a press conference in Anderson in 2019.
Sen. Todd Young at a press conference in Anderson in 2019.
WASHINGTON — George Stuteville used to wake up in the morning worrying about what the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette  was reporting from Washington. When he was covering Capitol Hill for the Indianapolis Star  from 1992 through 2001, Stuteville competed against the Journal Gazette’s Washington correspondent, Sylvia Smith.

An aggressive and thorough reporter, Smith kept close tabs on the Hoosier congressional delegation. If her readers were getting a story before the Star’s readers, it would make Stuteville’s life more difficult. “That would ruin my day,” he said.

Today, no Washington-based journalist is worried about what the competition is digging up on Hoosier lawmakers. That’s because there are no longer any full-time reporters based in the capital reporting for Indiana audiences. 

The Indianapolis Star  lost its Washington reporter when Maureen Groppe transferred to the national desk of USA Today  last year. She had been the lone holdover from a vibrant era of Indiana regional journalism.

Groppe was one of several Indiana reporters who covered Sen. Richard Lugar when I was the senator’s press secretary in the mid-1990s. At that time, in addition to Stuteville, Smith and Groppe, who then reported for Gannett News Service, there were several other reporters for Indiana newspapers, television and radio stations.

Indianapolis was served by Stuteville, David Haase of the Indianapolis News, and Monique Conrad, who covered Washington for Indianapolis and Lafayette television stations.There also was a reporter for the Evansville Courier and a reporter for a group of small Indiana papers. The correspondent for Knight-Ridder chain wrote for papers in northwest Indiana as well as the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the city’s afternoon paper.

The reporters were scrutinizing two Indiana senators and 10 House members.

“We were all competing against one another,” Stuteville said. “You always wanted to have an angle your competition didn’t have. The thing that underpinned the competitiveness is we all thought that what we covered mattered – that it was vitally important. This was an implicit value.”

Journalistic tension that kept the congressional delegation responsive doesn’t exist today. It’s much easier for Sen. Todd Young to dispense with his vote on acquitting President Donald Trump simply by issuing a statement and then refusing to conduct follow-up interviews, as was the case when Howey Politics Indiana sought to follow up after the Senate acquittal of President Trump last month.

“That interaction [among reporters and lawmakers] created some degree of accountability that someone like Todd Young doesn’t have to face today,” Stuteville said. That tension can’t be replicated by local reporters who catch up with Young whenever he visits their town or area. They see him a couple of times a year, not a couple of times a week.

Even when Washington reporters weren’t filing dispatches, they were observing lawmakers every day, Stuteville said. They were taking mental notes on everything from their legislative strategy and relationships with other legislators to their non-verbal expressions, such as the inflection of their voices or their body language. “It resulted in a lot more context for stories that did get published,” he said.  

Context also came from research. “I spent several hours each week covering rote bills and legislation,” Stuteville said. “We considered the paper as part of the public record, the journal of a society. The longer you covered D.C., the more you understood the process, the role of our legislators as a vote in committee and in the whole. In other words, context.”

Today, what is missing in coverage of Washington is perspective. “There is no context anymore,” Stuteville said. “Everything screams at just about the same level. Social media has enabled politicians to go directly to their base. In the golden days, mass media was the conduit to a politician’s voting base.”

With the dominant trend in the journalism industry toward job cuts and publication closures, it’s not likely that Young and other Hoosier lawmakers will see hometown reporters in the halls of Congress. 

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.