Roll Call Was Once Capitol Hill’s Newspaper of Record. What Happened?

It had been a few days given Roll Call reporters had final seen their editor-in-chief, Melinda Henneberger.

That wasn’t too unusual. Henneberger was mostly absent from a newsroom, operative haphazard hours a days she was there during all. Few blinked when she didn’t uncover adult to a staff assembly on Monday, Aug 1.

So when a paper announced her depart a subsequent day, staffers purebred a brew of startle and kismet. “People competence not have seen it entrance a impulse it happened,” says one source informed with a mood of a newsroom, “but weren’t astounded a change was made.”

The news pennyless quietly, with conversations mostly between staff and management. Some initial found out from a breaking news object on Politico.

Henneberger’s sudden depart capped off a nine-month widen during that web trade plunged, staff was cut, and brand-name reporters jumped boat in triumphal fashion. The unequivocally goal of a publication—founded in 1955 as a “community journal of Capitol Hill”—was called into question, which, depending on who we ask, was a many ban complaint of all.

Roll Call now finds itself opposed a bewilderment informed to many old-school DC news organizations: How to adjust and flower in a radically opposite media landscape. According to mixed stream and former staffers, many of whom spoke on a condition of anonymity, Henneberger’s sinecure final Nov was seen as an eventuality to concrete a prophesy for a paper. Instead, these sources say, a new pull for inhabitant news and heightened personal tragedy in a newsroom valid a damaging combination: Roll Call had strayed from what many saw as a bread-and-butter—Capitol Hill news—and a staffers, increasingly undone with management, lacked a spirit to try and drive it back.


Melinda Henneberger
Henneberger. Photograph pleasantness Simon Schuster.

The story of Roll Call’s existential torture starts good before Henneberger ever set feet in a newsroom. There was something elegant about some staffers finding her depart by Politico. For scarcely a decade, once-dominant Beltway trade pubs had spent a day perplexing to fastener with Politico and a new media sourroundings it represents: The Hill, once Roll Call’s daily rival, found a balance with fast, mostly many-sided news—a magnet for web traffic. National Journal, long a announcement we indispensable an costly membership to read, launched a giveaway website in 2010 that it deserted final fall. Roll Call’s primogenitor company, Britain’s Economist Group, bought Congressional Quarterly in 2009 and assimilated a dual newsrooms in 2011.

For years Roll Call was a primary source of Hill news, from granular pieces on celebrity clashes during contention meetings to top-line scoops on Senate races. Tom DeLay’s intemperate soft-money ploys? Roll Call laid them bare. Trent Lott’s banishment of Bob Dove? Roll Call pennyless that, too. They’re a kind of stories that competence have detered any general-interest reader, nonetheless served as critical for those underneath a dome. And it’s that audience—congressmen, their staffers, K Street folks—that has prolonged kept Roll Call and publications like it afloat. In 2016, though, that competence not be enough—and not customarily since of a strong new competitor. With congressional gridlock, there’s reduction movement to disciple for, that has put a fist on ad revenue.

Washingtonian spoke with some-more than a dozen stream and former staffers for this story. All those interviewed concluded that Jul 2015 was a tipping point. That’s when Christina Bellantoni, afterwards Roll Call’s editor-in-chief, left after about a year-and-a-half on a pursuit to join a Los Angeles Times.

It was then, sources say, that David Ellis, CQ Roll Call’s arch calm officer, emerged as a source of inner conflict. Ellis assimilated a association as Vice President of News in early 2014, following a prolonged reign during Bloomberg News. In Nov 2014, he was promoted to arch calm officer, a position he still binds today.

From his graduation until Bellantoni’s departure, Ellis mostly left Roll Call alone, focusing his appetite on a CQ side of a newsroom. The soft slight done sense: Web trade was healthy, and Roll Call was producing a kind of broadcasting that won a 2015 Dirksen Award for Capitol Hill reporting.

Christina Bellantoni and David Ellis
Bellantoni and Ellis in Roll Call’s DC office. Photograph By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; around Newscom.

Even so, some felt that Ellis was prickly for a some-more hands-on role. “Everyone got a clarity that, as shortly as Christina left, Ellis felt he could start micromanaging in a proceed he had always wanted to,” says one former domestic editor.

Following Bellantoni’s departure, Ellis instituted a slew of rarely publicized layoffs. He dismissed reporters who had prolonged been staples of Capitol Hill, including Steve Dennis, who is now during Bloomberg, and Matt Fuller, now during a Huffington Post. That same week, he dismissed congressional care editor David Eldridge, a preference that many found bizarre in a midst of a quarrelsome and informative competition for orator of a House. Sources contend a moves had as many to do with celebrity clashes as they did with an assertive pull to cut costs: With high distinction domain demands, stream and former staffers contend it was tough to ever feel secure.

Says one former reporter: “I don’t consider I’ve ever worked somewhere where people so evenly disliked a chairman in charge.”

The social-media process Ellis instituted for reporters in Sep 2015 helped maintain that frustration. It mandated that reporters twitter any violation news equipment to a @CQnow or @rollcall Twitter feeds, so that tweets would couple to a corporate accounts and accelerate their followings. “It’s your pursuit to support a code that employs you, over and above a growth of your possess personal brand,” reads Ellis’s social-media memo, performed by Washingtonian.

Ellis began scrutinizing reporters’ Twitter activity, according to stream and former staffers influenced by a policy. They contend he combined a spreadsheet to lane reporters’ weekly ratio of tweets to articles, and that he would proceed reporters divided to disapprove them if he found their ratio too lopsided. “It was surreal. Tweets to articles published? How do we even review a two?” says one former staffer. “To me, it signaled a finish disagreement of a political-media ecosystem.”

Ellis tells Washingtonian the process was a matter of common sense. “There’s no contributor here in a final dual years who has a bigger following than Roll Call. So, if we have 200 followers, and you’re tweeting about violation news on Congress, you’re many improved off doing it within a corporate Twitter feed.” Asked about a spreadsheet specifically, and either he used it to evaluate reporters, Ellis would customarily reiterate a thinking behind a policy. “I asked all staffers if they were tweeting about Congress, to offer it to a Roll Call Twitter feed.”

Many news organizations feel they advantage by giving their reporters room to build vast followings on Twitter. But staffers explain that Ellis was not meddlesome in a contention of because his process competence be counterproductive. “The tacit order became: Never disagree,” says one former columnist. “If he pronounced a sky was purple, afterwards we would say, yes, a sky is purple.”

They contend a newsroom’s diligent atmosphere was all a some-more differing given a design customarily one month before. “It wasn’t all fever and roses, of course,” Bellantoni tells Washingtonian. “But we did a lot of work we was unapproachable of. Morale was good.” She says that she and Ellis “had a lot of fights” nonetheless that she found their altogether attribute to be “productive.”

Of a staffers who were happy to speak pound about Ellis, customarily a few could offer specific anecdotes illustrating a “cruel” and “heavy-handed” strategy they ascribed to him. One chairman pronounced Ellis’s appearance “leaves many to be desired,” nonetheless wondered if a animus toward him was secure reduction in “specific business decisions” than in “personality” alone.

Nevertheless, Stu Rothenberg, Roll Call’s longtime domestic columnist, who eventually landed during a Washington Post in May, says one thing was indisputable. “When David Ellis came in to lop off heads,” he says, “the whole atmosphere in a newsroom changed.”


While people in a newsroom groused about tweets and attempted to equivocate being laid off, Ellis was acid for Bellantoni’s replacement. He expel a far-reaching net, seeking recommendation from Roll Call alumni such as a Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane and USA Today’s Paul Singer. Ellis wanted to know what they should demeanour for in a new editor, along with what a paper should essay to accomplish relocating forward.

He didn’t indispensably take their advice: “As a crony of a organization, I’ve told them all we consider about a core of Roll Call,” Kane says, “and we have nonetheless to see it.”

Sources informed with Ellis’s meditative contend he became assured a subsequent editor indispensable “star power” above all else. “He wanted someone who could be on TV mostly and be a face for Roll Call,” says a former reporter. “My clarity is that he was some-more meddlesome in someone famous on a inhabitant stage rather than during a Hill level.”

Henneberger seemed to fit a bill. A comparison author for Bloomberg Politics, she’d formerly been New York Times bureau arch in Rome and a columnist for a Washington Post. “She has a judgment, prophesy and vital clarity to move Roll Call to an even aloft level,” Ellis wrote in a staff-wide e-mail before she took over in November.

Despite Henneberger’s considerable résumé, her sinecure left many staffers scratching their heads. The editor-in-chief was customarily a stream or former Roll Call staffer, someone with insinuate believe of the House and Senate press galleries. Henneberger was an outsider. Rothenberg says he suspected Henneberger and Ellis “would never be assured with some dinky Capitol Hill newspaper.”

In her initial all-staff meeting, according to a staffer in attendance, Henneberger told reporters, “I wish to imitation stories that could run on a front page of a New York Times.”

“That’s when we thought, ‘Oh, boy, she unequivocally has no thought what we do here,’” that staffer says.

Some contend Henneberger’s principal impiety was not so many propelling a spin divided from Roll Call’s strange prophesy as it was unwell to clear any prophesy during all. She cut Congress-centric facilities such as a Hill Navigator, a workplace recommendation mainstay for congressional staffers, and brought in opinion columnists to write on a cluster of opposite topics. It was customary to corkscrew by Roll Call’s homepage and see, for example, an inside-baseball square on House Democrats flanked by a human-interest package on a Flint H2O crisis.

There were highs, too. This past July, Roll Call was a initial announcement to news that Donald Trump had picked Indiana administrator Mike Pence as his using mate. The story was a outrageous hit, nonetheless it melted Roll Call’s servers and some readers had a tough time removing to a scoop. Henneberger complained to higher-ups about a tech deficit. (She would after bring tech concerns as one of her dissatisfactions with a paper.) Ellis says “any website” would have had problem doing a trade to that report.

Ultimately, by January, trade had plunged to one-fifth of a assembly that Roll Call had in Sep 2015, according to comScore. By February, it was one-seventh. By March, it was one-thirteenth of a high-mark in September. (Internal numbers uncover a reduction thespian decline.) Ellis attributes a dump to a fact that Congress is in a “pretty idle period” during a presidential choosing year. But one chairman informed with inner discussions says an ever-changing news concentration meant reporters had no thought “who they were essay for anymore.”

That regard was brought into pointy service this spring, when Rothenberg announced his departure. Rothenberg, whose career during a paper spanned 24 years, creatively handed in his abdication minute in January. But Ellis pronounced he wouldn’t accept it, convincing Rothenberg to hang around. By May, Rothenberg says, “I motionless we couldn’t take it anymore.” He stresses that his regard was not merely with a paper’s changeable mission, nonetheless with a impracticality of a new regime’s expectations. “I argued regularly there was no proceed Roll Call with a staff, in terms of distance and experience, could contest with a Times, the Post, or CNN on large national, general issues. That’s as elementary as it was.”

Henneberger declined to be interviewed for this piece. But in a apart talk with me in June, she pronounced Rothenberg’s reasons for withdrawal did not have “any basement in fact. Any.”

“Stu says we’re chasing a news,” Henneberger told me, throwing adult her hands. “Yeah, that’s kind of a job.” She added: “I’d adore to be means to give him 1978 again. we was unequivocally lustful of that year. But that’s not a universe we live in now.”

Henneberger’s predestine competence have been hermetic by another thing that separates old-school newsroom forms from a telegenic accumulation who play to a inhabitant audience: Colleagues complained that she was mostly absent from a newsroom. At a Democratic gathering in Philadelphia, CQ Roll Call boss Paul McHale approached a organisation of Roll Call reporters operative together in a gathering center. He asked, “Where’s Melinda?” They responded, “No idea.” McHale, dual sources contend in recounting a event, was visibly angry.

In an email to Politico, Henneberger framed her depart as a outcome of disagreements over a refractory website, bill cuts, and staff cuts: The Economist Group had come to design a 25-percent distinction margin, and government was unrelenting on posterior some-more cuts to strech it, she said, “no matter a long-term fee on a organization.”

Today, 9 months later, asked if Henneberger’s sinecure was a mistake, Ellis pauses for a few moments.

“She’s a excellent journalist,” he says.


CQ Roll Call government appears to be seeking a uninformed start. Ellis credits a paper’s reimagined website, launched in March, for a new ceiling trend in online trade available by comScore. McHale points to a company’s new domicile downtown as another certain development, an eventuality to “build something adult from scratch.”

On Aug 4, dual days after Henneberger strictly departed, Ellis named Kris Viesselman as her replacement. Viesselman, who did not respond to a ask for comment, assimilated a association final Dec as comparison executive of digital calm and news products. Sources contend a sinecure was low-profile and swift. Ellis says that underneath Viesselman a paper will aggressively pursue a “multiplatform” approach,” perplexing to strech a bigger assembly by video and podcasts, digital products that, maybe not coincidentally, typically authority aloft rates from advertisers.

The landscape stays hilly for any announcement secure in Capitol Hill coverage. But McHale is assured there is still room for a congressional journal to thrive. A transplant from a Economist Group’s corporate domicile in London, he defines Roll Call’s goal as stating news that members of Congress and their staffers “must know.” (Asked to bring a Roll Call square in a final year that he feels lived adult to that standard, he says: “I’m not a on a editorial side, so I’m not…that’s not my role.”)

A organisation of reporters can be listened chatting as they pass McHale’s office. If spirit is down in a arise of a paper’s many new shakeup, McHale says, “I’ve had no justification of it.”

He smiles. “They suffer their jobs.”