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Getting the scoop on top reporters.

You're interviewing the chairman of a major company about corporate travel expenses. He senses your next question will be a tough one and attempts to change the subject.

"So," he says, "I see you're an avid sculptor and your husband went to Berkeley, my alma mater."

How did he know that? He may have hired a psychic or private detective. But it's more likely he subscribes to one of several services that provide biographical information on reporters and grades their interviewing, research and writing skills.

The latest is Press Profiles, offered since March through a Chicago public relations firm, Werle + Brimm. For $185, media-savvy corporate suits can obtain access to a database of "evaluations" of at least 200 reporters, editors and columnists.

According to Chuck Werle, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter who created Press Profiles, journalists are rated confidentially by executives they have interviewed. The ratings are done on a scale of 1 to 10 in eight categories, including accuracy, interviewing skills, writing ability, integrity, knowledge of subject and personality. The questionnaires conclude by asking if the executive can recommend "without qualifications" that others cooperate with the journalist.

Werle says the service, which has been attracting as many as four new subscribers each day, protects image-conscious corporate types from being caught off-guard.

"If you know something about the reporter, it is to your advantage," he explains. "So many times there's a hidden agenda. The unsuspecting CEO or chairman gets caught in a trap."

Werle declined to provide scores given to specific reporters in his database, although he did offer several tally sheets with the names blacked out. He says total scores have been averaging around 8, somewhat higher than he expected. Because numerous evaluations are usually submitted for each journalist, the impact of any individual ax grinder is diluted, he says.

Press Profiles is the newest, but not the only, service that rates journalists. From 1986 until last year, former Wall Street Journal Associate Editor Jude Wanniski had scored members of the national press in his annual "Media Guide." Wanniski, who left the Journal in 1978 to launch a financial consulting firm in New Jersey, says his guide offered constructive criticism of the work of hundreds of journalists. Each was rated on a four-star system based on accuracy, fairness, writing skills, consistency and other criteria.

Wanniski recently sold his guide to Forbes, although he remains an editor The 1993 edition sells for $19.95 and includes detailed critiques of the nation's 50 most important" journalists. In addition to continuing Wanniski's four-star system, the guide ranks the year's best stories and columns. Forbes also plans to begin publishing a quarterly journalism review this fall; both publications will be edited by Terry Eastland, a former editor at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and one-time spokesman for the Reagan Justice Department.

Wary executives need not depend solely upon report-card guides or computer databases to keep an eye on journalists, however. Plenty of reporters are more than willing to provide information themselves.

Fax Profiles, a spin-off of a business media newsletter published by another former Journal editor, collects resumes and personal information from reporters at various outlets and sells most for $49.95 each.

The profiles include reporters' work addresses, supervisors' names, employment and education histories, phone numbers, hobbies and family members. Prospective customers are wooed with promises that the information will help them "avoid the awkward silence that can be so unnerving when you first meet an important journalist and have nothing in common to talk about."

"Journalists will pull up profiles [of a CEO] before an interview," says Dean Rotbart, who created Fax Profiles and edits the TJFR Business News Reporter. "Where does a CEO go to find out about a journalist?"

"Journalists should not be exempt from the kind of scrutiny they dispense on a daily basis," he adds. "Any professional who's there to serve the public ought not to be shy about acknowledging what his or her credentials are."

Some reporters and editors who have been profiled agree.

John Brecher, the page one editor for the Wall Street Journal whose biography is among those available from Fax Profiles, says such services likely won't hinder reporters. "What they're selling is less knowledge and access than confidence," he says. "It's not that [sources] are going to get a leg up, they just think they're going to get a leg up."

Bill Barnhart, the anonymous" Chicago Tribune finance and markets columnist whose evaluation was provided by Press Profiles (his name was blacked out, but his newspaper and title weren't), says he isn't bothered by being quantified.

"We're all subject to these sorts of things, either formally, through [services] like this, or informally, through word of mouth," he points out. "If I began to worry about it, I'd have no time to do my job."

"There's such a gulf of ignorance between the press and business," Barnhart adds. "They may think this could be the answer to their anxiety."

And Now This This

"On Friday, February 5, at 10 o'clock in the morning, I telephoned the Pentagon press office and told the colonel who answered the phone that I needed information on duplication in the armed forces. He replied: |You want the other press office.'"
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Zagier, Alan
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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