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.