Don't worry about rough coverage hurting relationships and access (actually, it helps). You want to be a fair reporter, somebody who takes the beat seriously and respects (even likes) the people you cover. You also want to be a tough reporter, somebody who government officials fret about. You can be both fair and tough.
Something I learned covering the Clinton and Bush White Houses: A new reporter spends months, if not years, calling government officials and begging them for information. "What are you working on?" Once that reporter starts unearthing confidential information and writing incisive analyses that knocks the government off script, the leverage shifts: Government officials call the reporter proactively to ask, "What are you working on?" That's when the reporter realizes she owns the beat.
A story: I left journalism for about a year to help launch a (failed) startup. Among my partners were several Democratic and Republican consultants, all former White House advisers who met with me one day to plot how we could get positive coverage about our new company. Somebody suggested that we pitch the story to a reporter I won't identify, a name-brand journalist who was known to write favorably, habitually, about his sources. "Not him," one of the consultants said. "Nobody will take his story seriously. Everybody know he's in the tank." Another reporter was nominated, a veteran political reporter who everybody in the room considered to be tough, skeptical and fair. "She's a pain. She probably won't buy what we're selling," a former presidential adviser said, "but if she does, we're golden."
Be that reporter, the one whose respect the White House covets without taking for granted.
Don't go to White House briefings. They're a waste of time. The press secretary rarely makes news and, when he does, the information is a stale commodity; everybody gets it. While your competitors rot away in the briefing room, slip outside the gates and grab a meal or cup of coffee with a potential source, ideally one who doesn't work in the White House. Blowing off briefings is a competitive advantage.
Cover the White House from the "outside in." That's the phrase used by Caren Bohan of Reuters to describe her mastery of agencies and legislative offices disconnected from the White House vault. When Politico asked for tips on how to cover the White House, Jonathan Karl of ABC News said, "By going outside the White House "“ to Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department or the political world."
I used to joke that on any important story, there might be five White House aides who had the information I needed, and if worked my butt off, I might get two of them on the telephone. If I got really lucky, one of those two aides would tell me half the truth. The lesson in that hyperbole is that the White House is a small place with a tight hold on information. The only way to get your arms around the beat is to get your hands dirty in other parts of Washington.