JOURNALIST Q&A: John McManus

Grade the News, affiliated with Stanford University's graduate journalism program, has been a watchdog of Bay Area journalists since 2000, even issuing regular report cards on coverage.

Grade the News, affiliated with Stanford University's graduate journalism program, has been a watchdog of Bay Area journalists since 2000, even issuing regular report cards on coverage.

Its director, journalist and author John McManus, talks to PRWeek. PRWeek: In your most recent report card, none of the outlets received an A for newsworthiness - not even the newspapers that got overall grades of A. Why do you think that is? John McManus: Newspapers in the Bay Area tend to be quite market-driven. They are hungry for sensation - whatever they think people are talking about, regardless of consequence. We only judge the stories beginning on the front page and local news front page. So a front page dominated by sports stories or an emotional trial, such as the Laci Peterson murder, scores low in newsworthiness. We define newsworthiness as a measure of how much consequence a story has and for how many. PRWeek: Local network affiliates fare poorly. Is there any hope for local television news? McManus: Our local stations have talented reporters and photographers, but the newsrooms are oriented toward superficial coverage of the emotional, visual, and obvious. That's what sells best at the lowest cost in news gathering. Because it's so life-like and requires no literacy, television is a wonderful medium for news. There's hope, but it's largely unrealized. By the way, KTVU in Oakland has scored close to newspapers in earlier surveys we've done. So there really is hope. PRWeek: How do journalists typically respond to the site? McManus: It's been mixed, and it often changes with our reviews. Those who do well in our analyses generally speak to us. Others don't. Journalists are famously thin-skinned. They are completely unaccustomed to public criticism and often react savagely. The executive editor of the Contra Costa Times, for example, still won't speak to us four years after we exposed his paper's failure to label its regular "Saturday Homes" section as advertising. It's now labeled, so they did the right thing. But they haven't forgiven us for criticizing them. PRWeek: What's changed in Bay Area news since you've been doing this? McManus: Some journalists tell us it's useful to have us looking over their shoulders. Conversations are taking place in newsrooms that might not have if we weren't publishing. Some local media have changed their policies after our critiques, although it's possible we weren't a catalyst. More and more people are using our website as a resource to see more deeply into the news. Our reviews give them some leverage as consumers. And we supply ammunition for arguments in newsrooms about social responsibility. Until we can affect Nielsen ratings or circulations - moving them up a few points for providers of substance and down a few jots for purveyors of schlock - I don't think we'll be the powerful counterbalance to commercialization of the news that we hope to become. Name: John McManus Outlet: Grade the News Title: Director Preferred contact method: jmcmanus@stanford.edu Website: www.stanford.edu/group/gradethenews/index.htm

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