What are the best newspapers in the world and how can we judge?

A befriended blogger made a careless comment recently that American newspapers (with the New York Times on top) were ‘unquestionably the best in the world’. Being from European stock, and hence growing up with the equally silly idea that everything European is better than anything American (especially concerning levels of intellect), this naturally made me wonder how one could more objectively judge what the ‘best’ newspapers were and hence which papers would be suitable contenders for the title ‘best newspaper in the world’. Consider the following possible criteria, to which I invite the reader to add their own:

1. Truthfulness. One could argue that the more factual a newspaper is and the less it makes up its stories, the better it is. If you take commitment to the truth as the guiding principle, then newspapers reporting on things that are very hard to get wrong would have to be considered ‘best’. Outlets like Chess Weekly or newspapers simply reporting financial market data would then be ‘best’ because they report on things that are relatively easy to accurately report. On reflection, it should be clear that this is not really what one intuitively means with ‘good news’. Good news inherently has to do with topics that are not easy to observe but that nevertheless ‘matter’ in some sense. Hence we perhaps need another criterion than mere truthfulness.

2. Utility to the reader. One could argue that good news is news that gives the reader pleasure. Under this criterion, we can use the time-honoured economic revealed-preference tradition of looking at the price and volume of a paper to judge how much pleasure it gives its readers. The more readers a paper has and the more they are prepared to pay for it, the more utility the news they report apparently gives its readers. The ‘best’ newspapers in the world would then be tabloids like the Daily Mirror in the UK, the Spiegel in Germany, USA Today in the US or similar outlets unknown to me in the two biggest newspaper markets, China and Japan (making something like the China Daily perhaps the ‘best’ newspaper). On reflection again one would have to say that news interesting the reader is not necessarily ‘good news’ because such news neither has to be accurate nor ‘elevating’ in any way. Hence we perhaps need yet another, slightly more elitist, criterion.

3. Utility to the world. One could argue that good news is that news that alters world society for the better, i.e. that is instrumental in raising world utility. This is the natural criterioni to take from a utilitarian point of view, but a very hard one to put into practise. Which newspapers change things for the better? One could naively say that this singles out newspaper that expose cover-ups and that add knowledge that would not have been gathered otherwise. This would be a naïve thought though because it is not clear at all that exposing secrets improves the world. It is more likely that the newspapers that lead to the highest increase in world utility are the ones that push a particular partisan line that happens to increase utility, even though being partisan may involve inaccuracy. It is politically sensitive to say which newspapers are then the best because this involves a judgement call about which political parties in which countries are better for world utility, but it is worth simply noting that the utilitarian criterion makes us look to unexpected quarters for the title of best newspapers: it makes you look for the papers that sway public opinion in the correct direction. This again doesnt quite tally with our intuitive notion of good news. Perhaps we should then think of yet another criterion to judge what a good newspaper is.

4. Coverage of the changes that matter to people in the most truthful way possible. There is something to said for this, still somewhat utilitarian, notion that a good newspaper is one that covers the changes in this world that matter. Since the majority of the worlds population lives in Asia and since the majority of changes in the fortunes of people takes place outside rich countries, this naturally leads one to look at those newspapers that mainly cover poor regions and that deal with the big developments there as the best. I frankly know of no newspaper at all that comes close to this billing. The BBC gets the closest, but thats not a newspaper. The Anglo newspapers woefully neglect non-Anglo countries and over-represent minor happenings in selected countries (such the US and Israel) as world news. The French newspapers over-represent a very different set of countries, i.e. those that speak French. The Spanish over-represent yet another set again, i.e. the Spanish speaking world (which is rather large as it includes most of South America). The Indian and Chinese newspaper cover their own regions better but of course leave out the other ones. I do not know of a newspaper that covers the world from the principle that each human everywhere is worth the same and that hence what should be considered news are those events that lead to the greatest change in human fortunes. Lacking such a ‘truly great’ newspaper (or at least I dont know one), this criterion would tend to make you look at the newspapers that cover the most people, which would be the Chinese newspapers or perhaps the Spanish ones (which will also cover much of Europe and the really important events in Anglo-Saxon countries). Weve still not found a criterion however under which we arrive at the usual suspects, so instead of looking at the criteria one would naturally think of, lets go the other way and explicitly state the criterion under which we do arrive at the usual suspects.

5. Coverage of the issues a small self-appointed regional elite believes the rest of their population should be interested in, reported in as truthful a way as possible. Finally we have the criterion under which one can agree that, beyond reasonable doubt, the New York Times is the best newspaper in the Anglo-Saxon world. Only if we then add the opinion that that particular sub-section of the world is the only one that should matter to everyone in the world, can we drop the regional conditioning on the title best newspaper in the world.

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patrickg
14 years ago

Personally for me, papers that I find myself reading regularly, in no particular order:

The Guardian,
Der Speigel,
NY Times
LA Weekly (used to be, less so now).
Le Monde (specifically Le Monde Diplomatic)

In Australia, the SMH wins by a cruddy default. I wouldn’t put it with the others in terms of quality.

In AsiaPac, it’s a bit harder, I don’t read a lot, and there’s not a lot of english available, I guess Taipei Times, but don’t really have the experience to make the call.

Greg
14 years ago

I’d put the Wall Street Journal at the top of the list, particularly if I’m using the criteria outlined here. Of course, it has to be read with a jaundiced eye, because their truthfulness is contingent on their audience.

Yeah, and I’m waiting to see what happens post-Murdoch.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

6. Editorial independence. Obviously, that rules out anything that Murdoch owns as being anywhere near “best”.

Sacha
14 years ago

one could more objectively judge what the best newspapers were and hence which papers would be suitable contenders for the title best newspaper in the world.

What does “objective” mean here? Don’t think it means much.

Oz
Oz
14 years ago

Didn’t Tony Blair have a swipe at newspapers a few months ago stating that they’ve become ‘viewspapers’ because information is so readily available it’s about how they interpret it? I think he named The Independent as one of the worst.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Sacha,

the phrase ‘more objectively’ here is meant in the sense of being open about the criteria under which to judge. By explicitly saying ‘lets take criterion X as the measure of good’ one allows an outside observer to judge whether the newspaper under review is indeed the best one under criterion X. It does not require that observer to agree with criterion X. There is still of course a moral judgment involved in choosing the criterion but one has reduced the scope for subjectivity in the application of that criterion by making it open to outside scrutiny.

Lazy Aussie
14 years ago

Well by ALL of those criteria, the West Australian must be the world’s crappiest.

jimmythespiv
jimmythespiv
14 years ago

Obvious bias is much better than less obvious bias in a newspaper, particularly when reading articles about a subject that is not your specialty. That’s what makes The Economist, WSJ, Guardian and FT so good- everyone knows where they are coming from. Thye SMH and The Oz are terrible in this regard because of their inconsistency.

disinterestedobserver
disinterestedobserver
14 years ago

Its the Financial Times by a long way (but then I’ve almost never read the Wall St Journal – I’ve heard people say, however that the WSJ is a good newspaper if you ignore the comment pages.)

I think that a newspaper that needs to rely on being as accurate as possible if it is to sell – like the FT – has the best incentives to be a good newspaper, and as we all know incentives matter.

While sentimentally I am in the Guardian camp, I wouldn’t rely on it for accuracy. Indeed, with most newspapers now I feel that they write some of their stories to satisfy their perceived readership – this is what has dragged the Guardian and the Independent downhill – i’ll read them if I feel I want my prejudices confirmed, but if I want to know what actually happened (wie est eigentlich gewesen?), its the FT.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

I don’t read any of the papers patrickg reads, and especially not Le Monde diplomatic.

I think it is almost universally thought that American newspapers provide greater depth and quality of analysis and resources than any other – at least amongst people I know!

I think the Australian is clearly the best Aussie. At least they try and be investigative and write analysis, which is an improvement on the SMAge.

French newspapers are incomparable, for better or for worse. They are almost wholly government funded and are read by miniscule minorities. They have some strengths (feature length articles, philosophy, coverage of French Presidents and coverage of the Catholic church most prominently). They have a lot of weaknesses such as economics (apparently irrelevant) and current affairs (ie, no French mainstream paper would have told you that Mitterand was a sleazy amoral unprincipled dog until five years ago – I think that’s a newspapers major job, so I consider that a major weakness).

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Patrick,

the criterion ‘quality of analysis’ is an interesting one. The first thing one then thinks about is whether there are some truly professional newspapers providing high-level analysis of something. Again, chess papers or specialised magazines on, say, computers or car maintenance come to mind. In terms of depths of expertise and IQ of the writers it will be hard to beat outlets along those lines. Indeed, if quality of analysis is indeed all that counts perhaps we should include some scientific publications that provide almost daily updates as ‘the best’. Clearly hence again, analysis alone is not enough to earn the accolade ‘the best’. What is covered also matters, as well as whether it is read and whether it makes a difference.

All in all, if we’re allowed to count online publications as newspapers (and I think in this modern age that’s not too bad since many people only read online newspapers anyway), my vote would be for the BBC. Sure the BBC is known for television but I would count their website as a newspaper. It covers the whole world, it has in-depth analysis of many areas, and they have day-to-day information on events on every continent. And of course they have far more resources than other ‘newspapers’. They’d hence make a good showing on nearly all the criteria raised. But I’d certainly not say they are ‘unquestionably’ the best.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

WSJ is extraordinarily awful if you read the comment pages which I had the misfortune to subscribe to. I haven’t seen the rest of the paper, but everyone speaks very highly of it. Left(ish) and right.

patrickg
14 years ago

Actually I rescind my call about the SMH and replace it with the Fin by a long shot. I just wish it was online.

Patrick, I really don’t think that American newspapers are any better or worse than other newspapers in other countries – there’s a lot more of them, to be sure, but most of them are shite. magazines, on the other hand, and they have some real crackers, but we’re not including mags, right? Otherwise I would second Jimmy and say The Economist isn’t the evil it’s sometimes painted as, and would add Foreign Policy, New Yorker, etc. etc.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

I’m mainly reporting hearsay, patrickg – but it is very commonly held hearsay in my experience.

I think the SMH is close to the bottom of the barrel – but the Fin is pretty good. I actually get it delivered.

via collins
via collins
14 years ago

terrific set of criteria Paul, don’t think i’ve seen an actual agenda laid out to address the question before.

i’ll second disinterested observer on financial times, though it scores appallingly on proximity & availability outside hotel chains & airport lounges. the weekend edition is staggeringly good. diverse, and top shelf writing – journalism, and other genres.

the lazy notion that “us papers are the best” is unfortuantely being dismantled week on week. ownership changes, panics of the web economies have seen staff and skillsets spiralling, and while the LA Times can still lay claim to being “very good”, it’s sadly slipped from “great”, and the future ain’t as bright as one would hope.

oh, weekend australian is a very good read. puts the fairfax broads into a ditch. don’t know why it’s so hysterical and nonsensical through the business week though.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Via collins,

thanks. The demise of the broadsheets which you say has happened in the US has been commented on a lot. One easy ‘explanation’ for that is all this blogging: people reading blogger’s analyses and reading the same stories as in the newspapers for free on the internet (a mild form of stealing) in stead of buying a broadsheet. Both effects of the internet reduce the extent to which people are interested in and prepared to pay the analyses in broadsheets. Whether the net effect is a dumbing down of mainstream public debate depends on whether one believes that the greater availability of top-tier analyses on the internet compensates for the lowering of content in the tv and newspapers. My hunch is that it doesnt but I havent seen any solid evidence on the matter.