Lots of people rank colleges these days, and most of the rankers are in the news business. Rankings sell magazines and generate Web hits. Rankings also draw endless complaints: They’re viewed as an arbitrary, empty exercise in statistical manipulation that panders to the worst sort of list-making impulses, the type of time-wasting prattle one might expect of the record-store clerks in the Nick Hornsby novel “High Fidelity.”
All of which inspires a question: What if someone ranked newspapers?
There are, in fact, occasional attempts to cook up a list of the “best” American newspapers. Very occasional. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed newspaper editors for their picks of the nation’s best papers. The results put the New York Times at the top, followed by The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe.
But that was merely a news-media approximation of the “reputational survey,” the core instrument in the U.S. News rankings and one of the more controversial practices in the ranking business.
Editors who rank newspapers, like presidents who rank colleges, mirror conventional wisdom: They say nothing, arguably, that readers don’t already know.
Besides — that CJR survey is now 12 years old. A lot has changed in the newspaper industry since then. Ask the folks in the newsroom at the Trib, or, for that matter, the Times or the Post.
Using the tools of its own trade, a news publication might rank newspapers as they are today, perhaps according to journalistic pedigree, popularity and some measure of Internet savvy.
You could start by awarding papers points according to how many Pulitzer Prizes they have won in, say, the past three years. The Pulitzer is the Oscar of newspapers.
Okay: The New York Times has won 10 Pulitzers since 2009, by my quick and possibly inaccurate count. The Washington Post is second, with six. The Los Angeles Times is third, with three, followed by the Denver Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Saint Petersburg Times , each with two.
Next, rank newspapers according to circulation. Yes, it’s falling in double-digits across the nation, but there are still two U.S. papers that top a million in daily circulation and six more that top half a million. In order: the Wall Street Journal (2.1 million), USA Today (1.8 million), the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Post, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Tribune and the Dallas Morning News.
Finally, rank the same papers by the perceived quality of their Web sites. The blog 24/7 Wall St. has done this a couple of times. In 2009, apparently the most recent entry, the top grades went to the New York Times, followed in rough order by Newsday, the St. Petersburg Times, the Daily News, the Tribune, the Denver Post, the Star-Tribune, the L.A. Times, The Post and the Dallas Morning News.
Now, add up the points. We’ll give the Pulitzers twice the weight of the other measures, because they are presumably the most direct measure of quality.
And here are theresults.
1. New York Times, with 38 points.
2. Washington Post, with 28 points.
3. Los Angeles Times, with 27 points.
4. St. Petersburg Times, with 22 points.
5. Denver Post, with 18 points.
6. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and New York Daily News, with 12 points each.
8. Chicago Tribune and Newsday, with 9 points each.
10. Dallas Morning News, with 8 points.
It turns out we can’t rank the Wall Street Journal or USA Today on our final list: the 24/7 Wall St. folks declined to rate those papers on its blog, because they are national newspapers with larger budgets than everyone else. Even without considering their Web sites, though, both papers would have made the list, around the No. 8 spot.
The storied Boston Globe is missing, too - - it comes out at 11th place, hindered in our horse race by a low-rated Web site and plummeting circulation.
Are these the best newspapers in America? Probably not. I can’t defend my math. The criteria I chose were sadly limited, based on what I could find online.
In short, it’s a fairly typical best-of list.