Roll Call at the Big 6-0

by Stuart Rothenberg June 18, 2015 · 10:00 AM EDT

During my 23 years at Roll Call (my first column was published on June 11, 1992), I’ve seen many changes at the newspaper. It has been forced to evolve because journalism has changed more radically than any of us could have imagined.

Politics, too, has changed. In the summer of 1992, we still talked about the GOP’s “lock” in the Electoral College and the Democrats’ unassailable stranglehold on the House of Representatives, and we had no idea that two decades later we would witness the election of an African-American president, the birth of something called the tea party or the White House candidacy of a former first lady — twice.

Back in the summer of 1992, we didn’t know about super PACs or the war in Afghanistan, Vice President Dick Cheney, Howard Dean’s scream, hanging chads, the Club for Growth, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, John Edwards’ affair or the demise of the Democratic Party in West Virginia and Arkansas.

Nor did we know how polarized our politics would become, or how difficult compromise would be. In both parties now, true moderates are scarcer than Yankee fans at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston.

Party leaders, whether on Capitol Hill or back home, have lost some of their clout, replaced by “outside” political groups, Internet fundraising, partisan cable TV channels and newly elected officeholders who see no reason to defer to long-established rules and institutions. And changes in campaign fundraising and political polling? Don’t even ask.

Technological changes have re-written the rules of journalism.

The Internet has made it easier to do research and follow campaign news. My initial columns for Roll Call focused on TV ads and direct mail, because most people didn’t have access to them. That has changed with the Internet, with easy access for all. Of course, some of those technological changes have empowered voices that make our culture and our politics coarser and meaner.

Almost all of the changes to journalism over the past 23 years have brought with them both positive and negative consequences. But one development, the changing economics of journalism, has been entirely damaging.

The State of the News Media 2013, a report produced by The Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, documents drops in readership, full-time professional editorial staff, and print and classified ad revenue. The picture is a frightening one for journalists and readers.

The survivors — and new media entries into the field — are most concerned these days with “clicks” and eyeballs, a far cry from when the quality of reporting and writing certainly was as important as a company’s stock price.

Of course, there are many in the profession, both in the national and local media, who remain committed to the highest standards of journalism. Thank goodness for that.

When I started writing regularly for Roll Call, the newspaper had the Capitol Hill market to itself and a stable of exceptional columnists, including Mort Kondracke, Charlie Cook and Norm Ornstein.

Founded by Sid Yudain as a community newspaper, Roll Call became the newspaper it is today after Arthur Levitt Jr. bought it in April 1986. Levitt eventually hired Jim Glassman as editor (Jim’s wife Mary was the publisher), and the Glassmans bought a significant equity stake in the newspaper over the years.

I’ve written for a handful of very talented editors-in-chief, including Glassman, Stacy Mason, Susan Glasser, Tim Curran, Lee Horwich, Charlie Mitchell, Scott Montgomery, David Rapp and, now, Christina Bellantoni — all of whom proved to be smart, dedicated protectors of the newspaper’s brand.

And I was lucky enough to be present during what I will always think of as the Golden Era of Roll Call, during the late 1990s and the first part of the next decade.

Those were the days when the newsroom included people like Curran, photo editor Douglas Graham, Paul Kane, Lauren Whittington, Mark Preston, Chris Cillizza, Emily Pierce, Ben Pershing, John Bresnahan and Ed Henry, along with photographer Tom Williams and David Meyers (both still with CQ Roll Call) — wonderfully skilled journalists and terrific people who made Roll Call a very special (and fun) place to work.

Of course, we were fortunate to have an incredibly energetic publisher in Laurie Battaglia, who understood the importance of our journalism in the newspaper’s success and who was an unflinching supporter of those on the editorial staff.

Roll Call’s success, both financial and journalistic, produced competitors in The Hill and Politico, which was partially the brainchild of former Roll Call reporter Jim VandeHei.

The increased competition, changing national media environment and the 2009 purchase of Congressional Quarterly took a toll on Roll Call. Over the years, the newly merged company weathered many changes, including layoffs, which hurt morale.

But Roll Call has always been lucky to have editors who really cared about the newspaper, and fortunately, when talented colleagues left, talented new colleagues arrived to replace them. (Hope you are doing well, Shira T. Center, Abby Livingston and Josh Miller. We miss you.)

While reporters and high-profile editors get most of the credit for a newspaper’s success, no newspaper that has survived for six decades could have succeeded without a talented copy desk, a slew of editors, advertising sales people, layout folks, photo and video editors and the rest of the business staff. (Thank you for everything, former business manager Cindy Cunningham, wherever you are.)

As Roll Call celebrates its 60th anniversary, the obvious question is whether it will be around to celebrate its 75th, and eventually its centennial. As a mere handicapper, I don’t even try to predict election outcomes more than a couple of months before Election Day, so I am certainly not going to guess what the world will look like in 15 years.

I do expect the business of journalism to continue to evolve. For example, with younger adults more interested in getting their news on mobile devices than on broadsheets or tabloids delivered to their homes, it wouldn’t be surprising to see print editions disappearing.

Politics, of course, will carry on as if nothing has changed — except that the way it plays out will change as new issues emerge, voting groups evolve and technology advances. I, for one, hope Roll Call will still be around to cover it.