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From corn to Congress, reflections on the WDT Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — For more than 14 years, I’ve walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol as the eyes and ears of the Watertown Daily Times. But as I pack up our Washington bureau, one of my favorite memories goes back a little farther, to David G. Porter’s farm south of Watertown on a spring day in 1993.

That was in June, a few weeks after I took a job as a reporter at the paper. The senior John B. Johnson, then the editor and publisher, had plucked me, a Westchester County kid, from the journalism school at Columbia University and given me the agriculture beat.

Mr. Porter drove me around his cornfields that afternoon in a pickup truck, rolling nonchalantly over the ankle-high seedlings, and all I could think was, “What a waste! He’s smooshing his plants!”

I had a lot to learn about agriculture, a lot to learn about the north country and — although I’m sure I didn’t think so at the time — a lot to learn about journalism, too.

I think about that farm visit from time to time, almost 20 years later, because that’s where my marriage to Northern New York began. Without that relationship, I don’t think I could have been a very effective Washington correspondent for the Times. There’s a rule in journalism that you have to know your audience, and I started to know my audience the day Dave Porter inadvertently gave me that lesson in agriculture. When you grow several hundred acres of corn, you can drive over a few plants and the cows won’t miss it.

Of course I wasn’t entirely new to the north country, and I had some agriculture in my blood because my mom grew up on a dairy farm in Chenango County. I’d attended SUNY Oswego, written for the Palladium-Times out of college and even interviewed for a job with the Watertown Times in 1991. The Times’s managing editor for news at the time, the late Charlie Decker, scared me off with the news that I’d have to spend five years in a bureau like Gouverneur or Ogdensburg before having a shot at the newsroom in Watertown.

I applied to graduate school instead.

Of course my sadness is personal when I lose a job. But I’m also sad for Northern New York, which loses the connection that comes with local media representation in Washington. The wire services here will not write much about issues such as base realignment and closure in New York, water level regulations for the St. Lawrence River or milk-pricing policies that make or break north country farmers. A friend in the House Press Gallery ribbed me last week for writing so much about low-income home-heating assistance. But as former Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, once told me when I called him a bleeding heart on that issue, “I know my people.”

Of course, the Times had a long tradition in Washington before I arrived. Alan Emory was the correspondent from the Eisenhower administration to the Clinton administration and established the standard for the Watertown Times’s coverage of the nation’s capital. He came here when newspapers, not television, ruled the media world, and some of the biggest names in Washington journalism and politics knew him well.

He covered all the national political conventions from the 1950s to the 1990s, traveled to Russia with Vice President Nixon and appeared as a panelist on broadcasts of “Meet the Press.”

When I came to Washington, I quickly learned that I had big shoes to fill. Alan was on a first-name basis with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and his wife. He was friends with President Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, who dubbed me “the new Alan Emory” at a White House news conference. He chatted up Helen Thomas, the legendary White House reporter from United Press International, and he took me around Washington to introduce me to all of these people. They all knew about the Watertown Daily Times.

He also handed off to me seat number 66 in the House Press Gallery, from which the Watertown Daily Times has overlooked the State of the Union Address for many years. It’s high in the back row.

Alan Emory helped put Watertown on the map, at least in Washington circles. I’ve tried to keep it there, sometimes in the dignified way Alan did, and sometimes, well, not.

In 1998, when Charles E. Schumer, then a congressman from Brooklyn, was running for Senate for the first time, I took a trip up to the state to tag along on the campaign. I had to meet him and his staff at National Airport in Washington, and I was running a little late. I came into the terminal for private flights and was told our plane was already on the runway and I should get out there fast. So I lugged my bag onto the tarmac and huffed and puffed up to the plane, a puddle jumper with its propellers already spinning loudly and the door closed.

I yanked the door open, yelled that I was from the Watertown Daily Times, and saw Mr. Schumer and several aides turn their heads at me, stunned.

“You’re in the other plane,” one said — the press plane, it turned out, which wasn’t out there yet.

“Sorry,” I said. I waved goodbye, closed the door behind me, and walked back to the terminal.

That wasn’t the last strange experience on that campaign. On another flight, I was seated with reporters from the New York Times and the New York Daily News, and we briefly feared for our lives on a landing in Buffalo. It was another small plane, and we were landing on a windy day. As the plane was about to touch down, a gust of wind threw it off balance and one of wings suddenly dipped so much I was afraid it would hit the runway. It didn’t, but the pilot suddenly took off to give the landing another whirl.

After we’d landed, a reporter from the New York Times who had been seated up near the cockpit said the plane was being flown by a still-learning pilot, and that the senior pilot had been congratulating him on “good turns” and such along the way — then abruptly took the controls after the wing-dip incident.

I’ve had fun stories over the years: the Amish being exempt from the national health insurance mandate; the odd proposal to use the Obama economic stimulus for a dairy herd reduction; the weird-looking skeleton that Mr. McHugh, now the Army secretary, used as a prop in a campaign website photo (it was taken in a doctor’s office, but awfully hard to tell); the very familiar website design that Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, used when he came to town — copying Mr. McHugh’s, it turned out. And breaking the story that Kirsten E. Gillibrand, then a House member, was Gov. David Paterson’s choice to replace U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

I flew on Air Force One with Bill Clinton when he came to Alexandria Bay to campaign for his wife in her Senate race in 2000 — and wondered how his plane, a smaller version of the one you see on the news, but still big enough — was going to land safely at little Watertown International Airport. And I flew on Air Force Two a few years ago with Vice President Joe Biden, who came to Watertown to campaign for Bill Owens after Mr. McHugh became Army secretary.

One year, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, R-N.Y., put out a news release gushing about a deal on highway spending for New York. But I noticed that if you compared it to the version the House had already passed, with lots of projects sponsored by Rep. McHugh, it actually took tens of millions of dollars away from the north country, in favor of downstate spending. When I asked the senator about it, he snapped at an aide to get him some information about the deal — but the facts were the facts.

But I get some of my biggest kicks from the stories I was lucky to write as a local reporter in Watertown: the Massena man who, in court answering a charge he’d threatened President Bill Clinton’s life, told the judge he had one request: “I sure would like a cigarette.”

Or the story about Frank Van Schaick, son of a banker in Watertown, who started up a “nutrient” spreading business on farms, calling himself a “entremanure.”

Or a personal favorite about the old guy who sold unpasteurized pickles at the Watertown farmers market, possibly in violation of health codes. That was a story written for the headline: “Pickle-Packin’ Peddlers Present Potential Poison Problem.”

One thing that impressed me early on about the Times was the paper’s practice of covering the 10th Mountain Division’s deployments. In 1994, the decision was made to send a reporter and photographer to Haiti with soldiers from Fort Drum who were to replace the Marines who had occupied the country after the coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

When the reporter who was supposed to go realized his passport had expired, I — the reporter on staff with a valid one — got to go instead.

Suddenly I had to learn the difference between Humvees and Jeeps, colonels and captains. We slept where we could over 10 days: on the ground where there were mice and rats, on baggage carousels at the occupied airport in Port-au-Prince, one night in an actual hotel. And without any Army transports to return us home — something we overlooked in setting up the trip — we ended up asking the captain of a cargo ship to take us to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we could catch a flight home.

I often tell my friends here that the best beat I’ve had in my career was covering agriculture in the north country for the Watertown Times. It was the perfect assignment for driving all over the region. I put more than 30,000 miles a year on the little red 1994 Mazda Protégé I bought from Charlie Caprara, replacing a car I totaled in an accident at Coffeen Street and City Center Drive (now Black River Parkway) one winter evening.

Of course, having a girlfriend who lived in Massena — our reporter there, Malinda Brent, who’s now my wife — helped me burn a few gallons, too. We ate quite a few omelets at the Via Main diner.

When I came to Washington, I thought Alan had lost some of his personal connection to the north country. So I endeavored to come back from time to time. Some of the most rewarding work I’ve done is writing projects about farm accidents (thank you, Bryan Gotham in St. Lawrence County, for having me to your farm to talk about yours), about consolidation in the dairy industry, about federal impact aid for school districts. A number of years ago, I drove the route of the would-be rooftop highway, all the way from Watertown to Maine and back, just to see what it was like and to talk to people along the way.

The danger signs for the Washington bureau started several years ago. We stopped covering the political conventions in 2004; they didn’t make a lot of real news, and like many small newspapers, the Times decided many hundreds of dollars spent for hotels, meals and flights didn’t justify the feature-type stories. A few years later, the paper cut down on travel expenses enough that those week- or two-week visits to Northern New York each summer stopped.

On the other hand, we carried on where many other papers larger than the Times gave up. When I arrived in 1997, newspapers in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Bangor, Maine; Portland, Maine; New Haven, Conn.; Allentown, Pa.; Norfolk., Va., and other cities all had one-person bureaus here. Those all disappeared, and friends lost jobs, although Portland resumed coverage in cooperation with another news outlet.

Feeling financial pressure, we left our private office in the National Press Building a few years ago, shopping for space with Cox Newspapers, but choosing to sublet in the San Diego Union Tribune’s office instead. Good move, for Cox shortly closed. But then San Diego did, too, killing a 12-person bureau that had won a Pulitzer Prize and sending the Watertown Times in search of space again.

The Watertown Times Washington bureau outlived them all and has given me something to be grateful for.

There’s a line in a Clint Eastwood movie that goes something like this: “Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s gonna have.” Well, the saddest part about all these lost bureaus, and now the north country’s, is the stories that never will be written because the paper won’t have eyes at the Capitol to see them.

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