Lifers: 7 of 10 Washington reporters never leave

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

Unlike many industries--including politics--where workers change locations and careers, Washington's media elite never leave, staying active in the business for up to 60 years, according to a groundbreaking 34-year study of 450 national reporters like Bloomberg's Al Hunt and Fox's Brit Hume.

Called "lifers" in the new book "Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012," 69 percent of the reporters surveyed for the original book, "Washington Reporters," are still in journalism, according to author Stephen Hess.

Hess, a long-time Brookings Institution scholar on politics and journalism, said that of those his team was able to track down, 11 percent left the business before reaching 15 years, 20 percent stayed in 15-29 years, and 69 percent remained in journalism, most in Washington, 30 to over 50 years. He was unable to locate about 10 percent of the original 450, and 87 had died.

Of those "lifers" like Hume and Hunt, many changed employers but not their focus or job. A quarter have worked in journalism over 40 years, 13 over 50 years and three over 60 years.

Media critics often complain that reporters stay too long in Washington, creating a conventional and largely liberal view of the city, the nation and politics that is hard for conservatives to break.

Hess doesn't veer into that territory. Instead he and his team re-interviewed many of the 450 initially surveyed in 1978 to find out why and how they stayed in expensive Washington.

His survey provided two key reasons: While the industry is notorious for low pay, many of the reporters and editors married into dual income families, easing any financial burden. And, Hess added, his subjects reported that the business is a lot of fun.

"One thing I've discovered during a generation of observing Washington journalists, mostly men, is that they married above themselves," Hess told Secrets. "Check the number of wives who are doctors, lawyers, high government officials, top lobbyists," added Hess, whose book debuts this week.

The book is part of a bigger Brookings project called "Newswork" in which Hess probed the intersection of journalism and Washington. With publication of the book, he is uploading to the Brooking site some of the new interviews with members of the original 450. The book also includes a detailed biography of each of the 450.

Through the interviews, Hess found some shared characteristics among the lifers. Chief among them were a "sense of optimism and an absence of cynicism." Most had little time for introspection and few had major regrets.