How Our Papers Stack Up

Are The News and the Star-Telegram as good as other big-city dailies?

“THERE ARE THREE THINGS that no one can do to the I satisfaction of someone else: make love, poke the fire and run a newspaper.”

This comment, from the late journalist William Allen White, was cited to us recently by one of five journalism experts asked by D Magazine to rate and rank The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in relation to other highly regarded big-city dailies. We asked the judges to evaluate certain features and sections from one Sunday and one daily edition of each paper in the survey: The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. {The New York Times is a national paper and consequently ineligible.) A simple point system allowed us to determine average scores and make comparisons.

Although they gave our survey their full cooperation, our experts all warned us beforehand and afterward reminded us that comparing different cities’ newspapers is an ill-advised pursuit. This is especially true for the Star-Telegram, since its circulation, 236,158, is about half that of the closest paper to its size. The Inquirer, with a daily circulation of 420,173. Circulation figures determine how much a paper can charge for ads and consequently how much money is available to produce the paper. The other papers in our survey had daily circulation figures ranging from 467,828 for the Globe, to 513,099 for The News, and 780,123 for The Post, to 1,018,738 for the LA. Times.

But newspaper editors themselves often argue that smaller circulation should not necessarily mean less quality. So with these caveats in mind, we had to know: Are we getting the best from our local newspapers?

The judges: Dale I. Peskin, deputy managing editor for design and new media at The Detroit News; John C. Ginn, Knight Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas; Cindy Goodaker. an executive editor for Crain’s\ George Harmon, chair of the news/editorial department at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; and Bryce Nelson, professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism. As we promised, we quote judges’ comments without specific attribution.

To evaluate content, we asked the judges to consider coverage of local news, editorials, reporting, headlines and writing. The overall writing of The News was deemed favorable, without being exceptional. “All elements of The News are strong- the scope of the reporting, the quality of writing, the craftsmanship of editing, the presentation of information,” said one judge. While one expert criticized the paper for being “too focused on Dallas,” another said its localized flavor offered “a sense of its community and a sense of importance in its community.” Also, the Star-Telegram effectively conveyed the sense that it is a local paper, written and edited for a local audience, a paper that “defines the world from the boundaries of Tarrant County.” But one expert called both the Dallas and Fort Worth papers “provincial.”

As expected. The News’ sports section was lauded for its excellence. Three of the Five judges picked it as the best section in the paper, and one expert said it was “the most interesting and thorough section in the newspaper and one of the nation’s best.” Meanwhile, the Star-Telegram got one write-in vote for the “best section”: corrections.

Judges examined four aspects of style to evaluate how the papers looked: front page story lineup, photo composition and choice, overall graphic design and page layouts.

Although the Fort Worth daily didn’t warrant the scorn The Post did (comment: “continues to be one of the ugliest papers in America”), the Star-Telegram’s style was the noticeable nadir of our survey. Comments: The photos didn’t have news value and looked “posed or static,” and the overall graphic design was “very ordinary and somewhat dated.” Specifically, the font usage garnered the critique, “Yuck!”

The News’ style, on the other hand, was described as classic, which “can be powerful, and credible, but in the case of The News, it sometimes collides with the contemporary.” Another liked the design and thought it was “generally…clear, modern and attractive.”

Overall consensus placed The News and the Star-Telegram near the bottom, but the statistics alone can be misleading. After calculating style and content averages individually, The News ranked fourth and fifth, respectively and respectfully. Comments: “The News has a good reputation and lives up to it.” “It is one of the fine newspapers in this country.” Some said, however, that The News ’ quality has deteriorated in the last five or 10 years and that the demise of the Times-Herald is to blame.

Memo to Belo: People are paying attention, and monopoly is no excuse for monotony. It’s time to poke me fire.

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