April 23, 2019

We Need a Slower News Cycle

“Last month, I decided to try an experiment with my media diet. Usually, in the morning, I skim e-mail newsletters in my in-box, scroll through my Twitter feed, and peruse the news apps on my phone; later, in the office, I tap through my notifications and monitor more than a dozen news-related apps, including Facebook and Twitter, while juggling other tasks. I usually feel as though I’m managing to stay abreast of the day’s biggest news stories, but my reading tends to be fragmentary—I’m only skimming a story or absorbing a partial update. Although I’m reading more than ever before, it often feels like I’m understanding less.

I haven’t stopped getting my news in this way, but I’m trying to change my ways to a certain extent. I’ve adopted a new ritual: reading the print edition of the New York Times over breakfast and on my commute. Since the early two-thousands, when I was a cub reporter at the Times, I’ve had the newspaper delivered daily to my door, but, as I’ve started getting more and more of my news online, I’ve been neglecting it. Having returned to spending uninterrupted time with the print newspaper each morning, I’m engaging with the news in a more focussed way. Certainly, I’m able to read more broadly. I’ve read articles that weren’t in my social-media feeds, or that I missed while scrolling through my apps: reporting on efforts to make Copenhagen a carbon-neutral city, on talks between the United States and the Taliban, on a new study that found that the size of bullets affects mortality rates in shootings. It seems to me that I’ve become better informed.

Many people have tried such experiments, of course. And much has been made of how being tethered to our phones affects everything from our attention spans to our psychological well-being. In his new book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” Cal Newport, a computer-science professor at Georgetown University, marshals evidence that the addictive properties of our devices are not accidental but, rather, the product of careful thinking by tech companies about the feedback loops that will keep people returning to them. Newport’s main indictment is of social-media platforms, but he also argues that people need to rethink the way they consume news. Exposure to the online torrent of “incomplete, redundant, and often contradictory” information that now invariably follows a major news event is counterproductive and leaves us less informed, he writes. Even when nothing earth-shattering is happening on a given day, he continues, people follow a compulsive pattern of media consumption, triggered by any hint of boredom. “If you’re interested in politics, for example, and lean toward the left side of the political spectrum, this sequence might go from CNN.com, to the New York Times home page, to Politico, to the Atlantic, to your Twitter feed, and finally to your Facebook timeline,” he explains. Techies might add Hacker News and Reddit; sports fans, ESPN. Media companies profit from this “lucrative tic.” “Checking ten different sites ten times a day makes them money, even if it doesn’t leave you more informed than checking one good site once a day,” he concludes.”

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