December 4, 2006

The Times Wins a Straw Poll

It is a list that these days seems almost anachronistic. With so much bad news on the circulation side and uncertainty on the ownership side,the ranking of the nation’s best newspapers – a subjective rite that used to occasion a Time magazine cover story and that others tried as well – has gone out of vogue.

But that old debate recently re-surfaced when Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz was asked to select his top 10 newspapers during an online chat with readers. Kurtz started with the usual suspects, naming in no particular order a top tier of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal before mentioning two papers in the next tier — the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe. After that, his list began to bog down and he never quite finished it.

That prompted Jim Romenesko, proprietor of the popular media-centric Poynter web site, to solicit similar newspaper rankings from his readers, a group heavily populated by journalism junkies.Romenesko’s request generated both some critics, who derided the idea of a top 10 list, and others who wanted to mention their favorite small dailies, alternative weeklies or foreign papers. Still others wanted to put in a good word for what they saw as an under-appreciated publication.

But the task itself of ranking the best dailies attracted tepid interest. The exercise also seemed to bear out the point that other than the familiar brand names in the industry, it’s difficult to flesh out the list. Yes, the New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal led the pack, but even some of the voters acknowledged that the rankings seemed to reflect a stagnant newspaper business that was not producing notable up and comers.

“The similarities of these top 10 lists [are] both remarkable and depressing,” wrote one. “Twenty-five years ago, I think they all would have been widely divergent, after the requisite mentions of NYT, WSJ, WP.”

Added another: “It’s a pretty sad comment that a top ten worthy of the name doesn’t really get past the obvious first five: NYT, WP, WSJ, LAT, and USAT.”

Using a little creative methodology, based on the dozen or so viable Romenesko ballots, the PEJ assigned 10 points for a first place vote, 9 points for a second place vote, and so on. That created a top 10 list that was in descending order: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and USA Today (tie) and Philadelphia Inquirer and Dallas Morning News (tie).

It’s also worth noting that some of these papers—the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe—have been the subject of speculation, of varying degrees of seriousness, that they could be sold in the reasonably near future. Two others, the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer, recently changed hands when Knight Ridder dismantled its newspaper empire. None of them has been immune to the economic woes of an industry that has lost the confidence of Wall Street as it’s lost readers and revenue to the Internet.

All of which suggests that maybe a list of the top 10 newspapers is no longer the most interesting, or even relevant ranking. So, perhaps not learning the lesson that we should from Kurtz’ and Romenesko’s efforts, we want to solicit thoughts on another ranking. Here at PEJ we want to ask people to send us your list of top 10 news web sites instead. When we have collected enough responses, we’ll publish the results. And maybe it will inspire a livelier debate than occurred in the newsprint sector. In submitting your nominees, please email us at mail@journalism.org.