The Washington Post
The last N.J. reporter on Capitol Hill was laid off
Anyone elected to Congress from New Jersey in the past decade had Jonathan Salant watching their every move.
As Washington correspondent for the Newark-based Star-ledger and several affiliated media outlets, Salant combed through campaign finance reports, monitored voting patterns and cornered congressmen in Capitol hallways to answer his questions. He broke the news about funding for a long-awaited tunnel and discovered that an incumbent with no chance of losing was spending millions in his reelection campaign.
Most Capitol Hill reporters “just don’t report on what a congressman in a safe Democratic district in New Jersey is doing day-to-day,” Salant explained. But that’s what Salant did as the last remaining reporter for a Garden State publication in Washington — until last week, when he was laid off.
Even at a time of mass layoffs across the news industry, Salant’s dismissal has caused alarm in both Washington and New Jersey — with the same senators and congressmen he so closely scrutinized protesting the decision and beseeching the StarLedger’s parent company to reverse it. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N. J.)
called it “a disservice to our state” that will “leave millions of New Jerseyans with no firsthand access to the issues being debated in Congress.” He and 12 other members of the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter of protest Thursday to publishing company NJ Advance Media, adding that they “have different political ideologies, but this is one issue we agree on.”
NJ Advance Media executives did not respond to an inquiry from The Washington Post, but in an email to staff, they cited declining print revenue and a need to focus on the digital side of its operation as the reason for laying off Salant and its local news photography team.
“While we greatly value and appreciate the DC coverage we’ve had over the years, ultimately, our readers have shown us that they are most interested in local, NJfocused content that can’t be obtained from other sources, such as the Associated Press,” the executives wrote.
Salant viewed himself as serving as a proxy for New Jersey residents who couldn’t be in the U.S. Capitol every day.
“That’s why I have a desk at the Capitol,” he said. “The First Amendment, I believe, gives us a moral obligation. We’re the only people there to tell the public and hold people accountable.”
One Salant story started when he spotted a sudden influx of funds flowing from an interest group into a congressman’s reelection campaign; another came when he discovered senators using leadership political action committee money to travel the country or dine at Washington’s finest restaurants.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D) called Salant “a bloodhound [who] did an outstanding job day in and day out.”
Salant said he strove to be fair in covering members of Congress, and also tried to stick to substantive questions — which he thinks they appreciated. “You don’t stick a smartphone in their face in the hopes they say something stupid you can tweet out,” he said.
Lately, many states have been without a reporter like Salant. A 2014 study by Pew Research Center found 21 states had no local newspaper reporters covering Capitol Hill; 14 states had just one reporter.
It’s a troubling trend for news consumers back home, said Nikki Usher, a University of San Diego professor and author of a book about journalism and power.
“These D.C. correspondents provide an essential surveillance role in the national news ecology, sniffing out problems happening among the most powerful in the state,” Usher said. “Without them in this role, we aren’t talking about a hypothetical threat to functioning democracy but a real and present one.”
And while nonprofit news outlets help to fill the gap, many don’t have the reach that even struggling legacy newspapers still have, Usher added.
The ranks of the Regional Reporters Association — whose members cover Washington on behalf of local communities or regions — have shrunk over the years, said current president Nick Grube, a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat. Even though these reporters are based in the center of power, they have many of the same challenges as local journalists, from trying to get resources or access, to increasingly having to “prove our worth to our bosses,” Grube said.
“It takes a special breed to want to be a regional reporter
because of all those challenges,” Grube said. “There’s a trapdoor underneath you that can open at any minute.”
Salant, 69, also takes with him decades of institutional knowledge. He arrived in Washington in 1987 as a Washington correspondent for defunct Newhouse News Service. He later worked at AP, Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg, before returning to regional reporting in 2014.
During his time with NJ Advance Media, Salant didn’t follow
the pack of national reporters but stuck to New Jersey issues. During the Trump years, he didn’t ask his lawmakers to respond to every tweet, and now, he doesn’t press them on every Hunter Biden headline. “To me, the southern border was the Delaware River,” he said.
A past National Press Club president who won several journalism awards, Salant’s proudest journalism moment had nothing to do with writing about the seat of power. In early March 2020, he wrote a first-person story about his uncle’s funeral in New Jersey and what it was like “saying goodbye from 6 feet away” in the early days of the pandemic.
Weeks later, his aunt was rushed to the hospital with covid. Physicians were unable to get her emergency contact on the phone — only to realize, by searching the name on the internet and finding Salant’s article, that he was dead. So instead, they contacted Salant, and family members rushed to her aid.
In Salant’s view, the story helped save his aunt’s life. “It was a local story. Here’s a burial in New Jersey, for a New Jersey publication.”
Last Monday, Salant received his layoff notice. Two days later, he published a scoop about how a former congressman was converting his campaign committee into an effort to fight conservative groups focused on restricting public school curriculum. Salant, who still wants to report on politics, found out by reading Federal Election Commission filings.
“I’ve done this for 47 years and I was hoping to make it to 50 years,” Salant said. “I still might. That’s my goal.”