College Media / College Media News

Princeton Review's "20 Best College Newspapers" is a joke (rant)

facepalmVia Dan at College Media Matters, we find the Princeton Review’s “Top 20 Best College Newspapers.”

Wow. What a list. Some names you probably recognize: Yale, Texas, North Carolina, Duke, Harvard, Maryland. The entire list is reproduced at CMM. (Dan has also added 15 other papers he believes should be on the list.)

Pretty impressive, eh? Unfortunately, the list is complete and utter bull.

How do I know? I mean, it’s the Princeton Review, right? It has “Princeton” in the name, so there must be something there. They must have some pretty impressive methodology to quantify what are the 20 “Best” college newspapers in a country with around 2,000 such newspapers, right? They must have had a huge matrix of quantitative and qualitative measures and operational definitions of “best” to come up with this list.

Sadly, no.

This is the methodology for naming the “top 20 college newspapers”:

The 62 ranking lists are based on surveys of 122,000 students (average 325 per campus) at the 373 schools in the book during the 2009-10 and/or previous two school years. The 80-question survey asked students about their school’s academics, administration, campus life, student body, and themselves.  The surveys were completed online at http://survey.review.com.

The question they asked students about the newspaper on their college campus: “How popular is the newspaper?”

How popular is the newspaper?!?!?!

Setting aside the obvious epic fail that is popular=best (c.f., Fox News), the survey question is flawed because it asks people about what other people think. Who cares? Really, is that verifiable?

Look, I may think the Daily Eastern News is very popular on Eastern’s campus. But if you were to ask me to prove it, I’d have to get some facts to back it up, maybe survey some students, maybe get some circulation/return figures, things like that. Did every student who responded to Princeton Review’s survey do that? That’s a rhetorical question.

As well, how on earth do you rank college newspapers based on the opinions of people who have no interaction with other college newspapers? I mean, do most University of Texas students read the Daily Collegian at Penn State?

How do you even rank anything in a survey without using an ordinal survey question?

The answer is: You don’t. Unless you’re peddling some kind of b.s. college ranking book for $22.99.

And this is NOT a knock on any of the papers on the list. I’m pretty sure they are high-quality journalistic outlets. But I haven’t done any research to find that out. And neither has the Princeton Review. That’s the point.

Look, I know people like lists. I get asked frequently to give a list of student news outlets who are doing innovative things online. I can never rank them. Why? Because the most innovative student online outlets all excel at different things. And who am I to quantify which ones are best? Obviously, I’m not the Princeton Review. Maybe I should just ask some random students off the street how popular the student news web site on their campus is and rank them that way.

I haven’t delved into the other rankings in the Princeton Review‘s survey, although the “Best College Radio Station question” is like unto the newspaper one: “How popular is the radio station?” But if those two are indicative of the kind of high quality survey methodology Princeton Review is basing their “Best” list on, I’m guessing the entire rest of the book is filled with fertilizer as well.

And, yes, I realize they’ve been publishing this since 1992.

Anyone who bases any decision on what college to attend based on this type of pseudo-scientific stuff should probably consider whether going to college is in their best interests to begin with.

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