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Two different criteria are used to describe a newspaper of record. In the first sense, a newspaper of record is a newspaper which publishes public notices, information which may be of interest to a community such as the results of a city council vote, and legal notices. In the second sense, a newspaper of record is considered to be a publication with high standards of journalism, publishing information which is vital, important, and interesting. Under the first definition, many newspapers including the prestigious New York Times are not newspapers of record, although they are renowned for the quality of their journalism. In fact, the Times in particular has spoken out about the issue, asking people not to refer to it as a “newspaper of record.”
The conflicting definitions for a newspaper of record illustrate the changes that the news media is undergoing. Before widespread access to instantaneous communications, many newspapers felt that they had a public duty to publish information which people might have trouble finding in other places, even if that information was not particularly interesting, or if it only concerned a small segment of the community. A newspaper of record might publish foreign elections results, for example, to ensure that they entered the public record, with the understanding that this section of the newspaper might not be considered riveting by all readers.
In addition, many countries require legal notices such as intents to change the ownership of a business to be published publicly, to ensure that all concerned parties will have access to this information. A newspaper of record would publish this information, thereby ensuring that it was distributed and entered in the records. This practice is extremely valuable for genealogists and historians, who can pore through old copies of newspapers to get information about the people they study.
Many community newspapers around the world may still consider themselves traditional newspapers of record, providing information about upcoming meetings of city government, sports results from local school teams, among other things. Such newspapers also sometimes publish a digest of regional news which they think would be of interest to their readers, and a separate section is set aside for the purpose of publishing legal notices.
Major newspapers, however, have abandoned their role as “newspapers of record,” correctly assuming that their readers can get such information from other sources, such as the Internet. Instead, these publications have placed a greater focus on cutting edge journalism, reporting stories which other papers are not covering. Some people persist in calling these publications “newspapers of record,” when the more accurate description might be “newspaper of note.” Some well known examples of these types of publications from around the world include: The Australian, The Mail and Guardian (South Africa), The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph (London), The Toronto Star (Canada), The Hindustan Times (India), The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Standard (Hong Kong), The Guardian (London), The Washington Post, Al Akhbar (Lebanon), De Morgen (Brussels), Le Monde (France), Die Welt (Germany), and The Aftenposten (Norway), among many others.
One of the problems pointed out by "old media" advocates is that "new media" journalists relying on the Internet have abandoned the "newspaper of record" idea that the public should be informed whether news is mundane or not and seek more intriguing news items. In other words, a city council meeting might not make for exciting journalism, but he public needs to know what is going on in them so they can keep an eye on elected officials. If reporters are out chasing exciting stories, who is going to keep an eye on the more mundane matters? Will public officials be able to slip out of view and engage in wholesale corruption?
Whether that argument has merit is up for debate, of course, but it has become a fairly common one.