Although communication researchers talk and write eloquently about the quality press and seem to have a clear concept what the term means, hardly anyone has made an effort to define it. A short, impressionistic review of handbooks and lexica as well as of online resources like Wikipedia and Google shows the term “quality” in many media-related contexts. But the “quality press” itself has attracted little attention from researchers (Spassov 2004).
Nevertheless, there seems to be an unwritten consensus that those newspapers and newsmagazines are considered quality press that (1) address the “intelligentsia” (Sparks & Campbell 1987, 456), i.e., the elites and decision-makers of a country; (2) are distributed nationally rather than regionally; and (3) provide a broad and in-depth coverage of news and background information. A recent German definition (Raabe 2006) emphasizes additionally that quality papers frequently cooperate internationally with other quality print media; that they often have local or regional editions for several big cities, including the capital of the country; and that they offer a journalistically rich “menu” to readers as well as an attractive readership to advertisers – including sporadic supplements.
The term “quality press” implicitly contains a clear value judgment. Labeling some newspapers “quality press” implies inevitably that all the other press products are not “quality press.” This can be unfair, as regional newspapers or even the boulevard press differ in terms of their quality, too. Besides that, even the quality newspapers and magazines differ among themselves and from country to country.
Preconditions Of A Quality Press
A non-negotiable precondition of quality press is press freedom and democracy – though even dictatorships may try to create the impression that quality papers continue to exist, as Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels did: in Nazi Germany for many years the Frankfurter Zeitung benefited from this policy. It was the newspaper that had more leeway to place messages “between the lines” than the others (Gillessen 1986). Otherwise, the quality press depends on the existence of the following conditions:
- Degree of education and “demand” of publics: an educated and literate readership has to exist, and it has to be willing to pay for news and information.
- Cultural tradition: in “northern” countries a “habit” of reading newspapers seems to have grown, whereas in “southern” countries such a tradition is limited to very small elites.
- Sales system: where newspapers have to compete at the newsstand daily, it is less likely that quality press will develop.
- Degree of centralization: in countries like France, Great Britain, and Austria the so-called quality press is concentrated in the capital. In more decentralized countries like the US, Germany, and Switzerland quality papers are more “equally” distributed among different cities and regions, and thus have a broader base from which to be nourished.
- Size of countries: in smaller countries, it is more difficult to develop quality press – but countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland prove that there are exceptions to this rule.
Identifying The Quality Press
No single researcher can give a solid overview of the quality press throughout the world. The earliest and still most prominent attempt to identify the “club” of quality newspapers worldwide dates back to the late 1960s: Merrill (1968, 32–44) cited different rankings made until then in the Merrill Elite Press Pyramid. Among the world’s top 10 papers were the New York Times, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Le Monde, the Guardian, The Times, Pravda, Jen-min Jih-pao (Peking), Borba (Belgrade), Osservatore Romano (Vatican City), and ABC (Madrid). While the idea of identifying elite newspapers certainly makes sense, Merrill’s ranking itself seems dubious. Though based on experts’ judgments from various continents, his list of 10 newspapers contains four from countries where press freedom as the basic requirement for developing a quality press was nonexistent at that time. Pravda, Jen-min Jih-pao, and Borba were organs controlled by communist or socialist governments, and ABC was censored by the fascist Franco regime. Further, the Osservatore Romano is controlled more by the Catholic church than by a politically “independent” publisher.
More recent rankings include a look ahead in the Columbia Journalism Review (1999) into the twenty-first century, in which only American newspapers were ranked by top editors, and a study by the German media watchdog organization Internationale Medienhilfe based on the judgments of 1,000 media experts in 50 countries. According to the latter, the top five newspapers in the world in the year 2005 were (1) the Financial Times (UK), (2) the Wall Street Journal (USA), (3) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), (4) Le Monde (France), and (5) Neue Zuercher Zeitung (Switzerland). Due to the scandals in which the New York Times was involved, it ranked only sixth in this review (Neue Zürcher Zeitung 2005).
Reviewing the literature and picking out just a few countries, some “obvious” examples of the quality press are: in France, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and the Herald Tribune (an American newspaper published in Paris); in Germany, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt, the business newspapers Handelsblatt and Financial Times Deutschland, and as weeklies Der Spiegel and Die Zeit; in Great Britain, the Independent, the Guardian, the business newspaper the Financial Times, and the newsmagazine The Economist; in Italy, Corriere della Sera and the business newspaper Il Sole-24 Ore; in Japan, Asahi Shimbun; in Spain, El Pais; in Switzerland, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Tagesanzeiger (internationally much less “visible”), and the weeklies Facts and Weltwoche; in the US, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal (the world’s leading business paper), the weekly newsmagazines Time and Newsweek, and the New Yorker as a cultural highlight.
The difficulty in defining its characteristics apart, the quality press in many western countries has become an endangered species. Book titles like The vanishing newspaper (Meyer 2004), and magazine stories addressing “journalism without journalists” (Lemann 2006) or analyzing the sharp decrease in foreign correspondence (Arnett 1998), can be seen as alarming. As classified advertising is shifting to the Internet, the web is eating up newspapers’ revenue sources. And many users, particularly younger ones, have become accustomed to receiving information for free online, which poses a threat to the survival of the quality press. While the public debate concentrates on bloggers and “citizen journalists” endangering professional journalism, the other real threat for quality journalism may be the rise and the professionalization of public relations (PR). If a scenario developed by Ries and Ries (2002) should come true, PR will expand at the expense of advertising – and thus the resource basis for quality journalism will erode further.
- Arnett, P. (1998). Goodbye, world! American Journalism Review, Nov./Dec. At www.ajr.org/ Article.asp?id=3288.
- Columbia Journalism Review (1999). America’s best newspapers. Nov./Dec. At www.archives.cjr.org/ year/99/6/best.asp, accessed April 5, 2007.
- Gillessen, G. (1986). Auf verlorenem Posten: Die Frankfurter Zeitung im Dritten Reich. Berlin: Siedler.
- Lemann, N. (2006). Amateur hour: Journalism without journalists. New Yorker, pp. 44–49 (August 7 and 14).
- Merrill, J. (1968). The elite press: Great newspapers of the world. New York: Pitman.
- Meyer, P. (2004). The vanishing newspaper. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
- Neue Zürcher Zeitung (2005). Die renommiertesten Blätter: Weltweite Umfrage unter 1000 Personen. July 8.
- Raabe, J. (2006). Qualitätszeitungen. In G. Bentele, H-B. Brosius, & O. Jarren (eds.), Lexikon Kommunikations- und Medienwissenschaft. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p. 236.
- Ries, A., & Ries, L. (2002). The fall of advertising and the rise of PR. New York: HarperCollins.
- Sparks, C., & Campbell, M. (1987). The “inscribed reader” of the British quality press. European Journal of Communication, 2, 455–472.
- Spassov, O. (2004). The quality of the press in southeast Europe: To be or not to be. In O. Spassov (ed.), The quality of the press in southeast Europe. Sofia: Southeast European Media Center, pp. 7–35.