An interview with John McManus of Grade the News

As promised, loyal readers (both of you), I tracked down John McManus, director of Grade the News, to follow up on a report in the Palo Alto Weekly that the five-year-old media watchdog group was in danger of losing its funding, and thus, its life.

Truth be told, McManus isn’t that hard to find.

He and Grade the News associate director Michael Stoll walk the halls of Dwight Bentel Hall here at San Jose State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, perching themselves in an office just outside the old photo studio current student lounge no, it’s still the photo studio. (I try to stay out of this argument.)

And today, I didn’t even have to look, because McManus walked right by me with his cup of coffee.

We pulled up chairs in the studio/lounge and I rattled off a few questions.

“I think they’ve considered us a thorn in their side,” said McManus of the people who run Bay Area media organizations.

McManus said it’s a different story when it comes to rank and file reporters. He’s even heard of Grade the News reports getting tacked to the newsroom wall.

“I think they put them up to spread the word about issues they care about,” McManus said.

Grade the News issues report cards on local media outlets, hands out CJR Darts & Laurels-style Bouquets & Brickbats, and maintains a Coffeehouse forum for discussion.

“It takes time, patience and resources to do the sort of systematic social science analysis that Grade the News does,” McManus said.
On the few occasions this school year when I’ve strayed from my desk at the Spartan Daily to hide out in the quiet student lounge, I’ve found undergraduates hunched over local newspapers, pencils in hand, doing content analysis on every story in a given edition of the paper, charting everything out and making notations.

This is the sort of hardcore quantitative research that doesn’t come cheap, not counting the interns.

Grade the News has been funded by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation.

The money, however, has run dry.

Without $180,000, its annual budget, Grade the News will have to ramp down operations starting in March.

McManus said he and Stoll, the two part-time employees of Grade the News, would not be able to continue doing research without that funding.

“We’ll have to find real jobs,” McManus said.

McManus said that projects already in progress, including upcoming report cards, will be completed, and the Web site should stay active, but without the time to dedicate to quantitative analysis, the group wouldn’t be the same.

Grade the News has looked to foundations, including local ones, for continued funding.

“It’s hard to raise money from foundations for controversial projects,” he said.

McManus said he hoped “someone — or someones” in the community would step forward to support Grade the News.

According to McManus, there is “precious little” objective analysis of Bay Area journalism, and media organizations should not be left to critique themselves.

“They hold others up to account, and there needs to be someone outside their employ that holds them up to account,” McManus said.

McManus started Grade the News in 2000, working out of the front bedroom of his house. Before moving to San Jose State, it was housed at McManus’ alma mater, Stanford University.

“Grade the News rose to address the increasing economic rationale of news and loss of the public service component,” McManus said. “I think the forced sale of Knight Ridder is a primary example of how market pressures, in this case from Wall Street, are creating pressures that will lead to the de-skilling and depopulating of newsrooms.”

Traffic is up on the Grade the News Web site, according to McManus.

“We’ve demonstrated that this model works,” he said. “If someone wanted to step in and help us continue, we’d love to do that.”

Want to help Grade the News stay alive? Make a donation. A big one would be nice.

[tags]grade the news, media criticism, media watchdog, journalism, j-school, sjsu, john mcmanus[/tags]