Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

Posted July 2, 2003

Women change the newsroom and the news;
The best papers improve; the rest are "chained"

University of California at Berkeley Librarian and Journalism Professor Thomas C. Leonard interviewed by John McManus

There has been a broad rights revolution beginning in the 1960s. Women are represented in many fields of journalism in proportion to their numbers in the population. That has made a difference, for example, in how women figure as people in the news. And, for that matter, how “women’s issues,” so called, are treated.

If you were to plot the overall quality of the news media against time in the 20th century, would it look like rising line across the century, or would there be some noticeable ups and downs?

That looks different in broadcasting and print. In terms of the news divisions of broadcast networks, it’s clear that the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s was a particularly rich time. They didn’t have the competition of cable, and they saw the demise of the radio networks. They were looking at news as a “loss leader,” as a way to create prestige for the network, as a way of avoiding regulation. These news organizations were really well staffed, with many foreign bureaus.

In terms of the resources they had--and just as important--the prime time they had to reach an audience, that was an era that we haven’t seen since.

The best newspapers got better, but not the rest

Print: that’s a more varied story. I’m inclined to see that things are getting better for the best of the American newspapers.

I think the kinds of resources that The New York Times, even the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal--the national publications--the resources that they have to go after stories both in this country and abroad, it’s hard to find a time when there were more serious newspapers that could cover these matters in-depth.

A great many American newspapers — I would say certainly more than 1,500 of the 1,500-and-change that we have -- that are so constrained by their resources they are not headed in the direction of becoming great newspapers.

That’s kind of a sad spectacle, because if you took a look at newspapers in 1910 or 1920, you would find, I think, more newspapers that were, it seemed, ready to compete with the best newspapers. With the coming of consolidation, chain ownership, that’s simply not going to happen, and these newspapers know it.

For magazines, I think that at their best American magazines are as good as or better than they’ve ever been. A title like The New Yorker comes to mind, or The Atlantic. The problem is that none of these publications that are doing such a great job are actually making any money. It’s an open question whether you can sustain a magazine forever just because of its prestige, or because of the feeling of a family or an editor who’s subsidized it.

Bay Area still not competitive

What about San Francisco Bay Area journalism? Do you see trends there in terms of the major papers — the Chronicle, The Examiner, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal?

Well, this is a tough time to grade newspapers. This publication, your Web site, certainly knows this. With the recession and the dot-com collapse in the Bay Area, these publications have been hit by really tough economic times.

You have to not grade them too harshly, perhaps, at a time when their resources are so limited. I think that all of the newspapers you mentioned do a decent job of serving their community. Of the ones you’ve mentioned, only the Chronicle and the Mercury News have the resources to be compared on a national level, and I would say that they haven’t yet made it in competing with the best American newspapers.

We’ve heard the Hearst organization (publisher of the Chronicle) and Knight-Ridder (publisher of the Mercury News) say that that is their aspiration. But I suppose, to be fair, we would need to wait and see how they perform in a more buoyant economy.

If you look at the Chronicle, and particularly the Mercury lately, you see things that you didn’t see 10 or 15 years ago, specifically on the front page — more sports stories, even sports columnists. More what I would call “buzz” stories. The Mercury once even incorporated Spider-Man into its logo, its masthead. That strikes me as a blatant commercial connection.

I suppose they might say — put it a little bit differently — that they have a big problem attracting young people, and that if putting hit films on the front page lures younger people into reading, then that’s all to the good.

There was a time when what a newspaper put on its front page might be the single best indicator of how good a newspaper it is, but I think today you’ll find pretty strange lifestyle stories on the front page of otherwise very serious newspapers.

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Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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