Stairs down from the pedestal

Jay Rosen declares that The New York Times is no longer America’s greatest newspaper; The Washington Post is. Of course, I should recuse myself from this jury.

Jay is actually covering three discussions. First, what he’s really talking about here is The Times’ inability to tell its own story, again. He and I do not blame Kit Seelye’s account of Judy Miller’s homecoming to the newsroom; she covered what was there, which was nothing, in the business’ most thankless assignment this side of doing Katie Couric’s hair. (Maybe this is one case in which anonymous sources are OK: Wouldn’t you like to hear the real thought bubbles from reporters in that newsrooom at that hour?) Jay and Howard Kurtz and most reporters are eagerly awaiting The Times’ story on Miller… and wondering why they have to wait.

Second, he is talking about the rise of The Post and I’ve seen the same impressive velocity. It’s not just media coverage (I’m a Kurtz fan) and Washington tales in their backyard but also the way they’ve attacked big stories.

But third, what Jay doesn’t explore yet — and I hope he does — is the question of what makes a great newspaper today. What is that definition? Has it changed? Should it?

I do think that there are two miles-apart leagues at play: the national and the local. The Times, The Post, and The Journal are Jay’s best three papers — and I think he hints that renewed competition among them will be healthy — but that is, in part, because they are the only real candidates to be national papers.

A great local paper must be local. That’s why I was appalled when I read Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story about the clash of church and state at the LA Times (no, it’s not online, but you can’t blame me for that anymore). Aulette says that LAT editor John Carroll, who resigned in a budget snit, and Dean Baquet, his successor, cut the Orange County bureau from 200 to fewer than 20 and expanded the Washington Bureau and spent a fortune covering Iraq and opened more foreign bureaus than The Post. Screw what’s happening in Washington: we can find that out anywhere. What’s happening in Anaheim? “Carroll and Baquet’s obession with matching America’s best newspapers came at the expense of local coverage,” Auletta says.

So I’ll ask Jay: What is the proper ambition for a newspaper today? What makes a paper great?