Sarah D. Wire describes herself as a one-person bureau here in the nation’s capital and she probably has one of the biggest beats of any reporter here – she covers California’s congressional delegation for the Los Angeles Times. With 55 members on the Hill, it is the largest delegation of any state.
She joined the Times in 2015 to cover the delegation after covering politics in Washington for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She has been a statehouse reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Associated Press bureaus in Idaho and Missouri. Wire, a Colorado native, is a graduate of the University of Missouri. She was on the team of Times journalists whose coverage on the San Bernardino massacre won a Pulitzer Prize.
In Q-and-A fashion, Wire talked about how she approaches her job, what her challenges are and she shared some reporting tips and offered a little advice for journalism today with a crowd at The Fund for American Studies the evening of Jan. 30. Alice Ollstein, a director on the SPJ-DC chapter board, posed the questions; and later Wire took a few questions from the audience.
The event was co-sponsored by the SPJ-DC chapter and Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS). Hosting the event was Joe Starrs, a former SPJ-DC officer and the director of Institute on Political Journalism of TFAS.
Before she got to Washington, Wire said, covering the statehouse in Arkansas and elsewhere really prepared her for her current job, though this beat “feels like I’m covering an entire branch of government.” The Times has another reporter, she said, who covers Congress.
Wire joked that she was secretly happy Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy didn’t get the House Speaker post because it would have been “just one more thing to do!” Instead Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan was picked last November to fill the spot in the new Congress; McCarthy was elected House majority leader.
Before she got the Times job, she’d never been to California. When she went there to interview for the job, she said, she learned the state “lives up to every stereotype and breaks every stereotype.”
One big challenge is “staying focused (with) so much news happening right now” with the new Trump administration. It’s hard to remember what people “were angry about last week,” she said.
With daily news coming out of confirmation hearings on Cabinet nominees and President Donald Trump’s refugee ban and a flurry of other executive actions, she thinks the majority of work on one hot-button issue – the GOP’s proposed repeal and replacement of Obamacare – “is going to happen behind the scenes.”
She checks in with each member of California’s delegation on a regular basis, plans coffee with each one of them quarterly and keeps a spreadsheet on each one to note how they vote, their committee work but also some personal info that could make a great feature or offer insight into the delegation member for readers. For example, she said, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher at 68 is a serious surfer and Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano “makes an amazing guacamole.” Such details “make these people human,” she added.
When members of the delegation have big news, Wire also urges them to break the story in the Times – their hometown paper –not a Washington media outlet, like Politico.
“People want to know not just how their representative or senator vote but why,” she noted.
Wire also makes a point to respond to as many readers as possible. “Readers of the L.A. Times are the most vocal readers I’ve ever had. Not all negative, not all positive,” she said. If a reader has a valid comment or criticism – not just some ad hominem attack – “I try to take time to respond.”
When asked her take on the anti-media sentiment in the country that is palpable and growing, Wire said, “We have to do a better job explaining how we do our job and continue the conversation as much as possible.” She also reminded the reporters in the audience to “be conscious of your own opinion” and keep it out of the story. Also, she makes sure she talks to enough people, too, to make sure she has balance.
Contact with readers has led her to keep a spreadsheet on them, too, so that when she is working on a story and she needs to talk to Californians who might have firsthand knowledge of an issue – such as how the Affordable Care Act is working on the ground – she can query those readers and see if they can answer her questions or know someone who can.
“It’s a good way to bring real voices into reporting,” Wire said.