We spend hours consuming news because we want to be well informed. But is that time well spent? News is by definition something that doesn't last. And as news has become easier to distribute and cheaper to produce, the quality has decreased.
Rarely do we stop to ask ourselves questions about what we consume: Is this important? Is this going to stand the test of time — say, in a week or in a year? Is the person writing this someone who is well informed on the issue?
“[W]e're surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the never-ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all.”
— Nicolas Carr
There are several problems with the way we consume news today:
First, the speed of news delivery has increased. We used to have to wait to get a newspaper or gossip with people in our town to get our news, but not anymore. Thanks to alerts, texts, and other interruptions, news find us almost the minute it's published.
Second, the costs to produce news have dropped significantly. Some people write 12 blog posts a day for major newspapers. It's nearly impossible to write something thoughtful on one topic, let alone 12. Over the course of a year, this works out to writing 2880 articles (assuming four weeks of vacation). The fluency of the person you're getting your news from in the subject they're covering is near zero. As a result, you're filling your head with surface opinions on isolated topics. Because the costs have dropped to near zero, there is a lot of competition.
Third, producers of news attempt to hijack our brains. News producers perpetuate a culture of “tune in, don't miss out, follow this or you'll be misinformed, oh wait, look at this!” As you consume more and more of that kind of news, you have less and less time for what matters.
Fourth, the incentives are misaligned. In part, because there is a lot of competition, most news outlets feel compelled to offer free news. After all, everyone else is doing it. However, when the news is free, you still need to pay people, so you move away from a subscription model that was selling static ads to a captive audience to a model that's selling the audience to advertisers. Page views become the name of the game, and the more, the better. For a lot of people who create news (I won't use the term “journalists” here because I hold them in high regard), the more page views they get, the more they are compensated. A lot of these ads aren't just impressions; they're also giving information about you to the advertisers, but that's another story.
I could go on, but I think you're starting to see the picture now.
“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
— Herbert Simon
The point is, most of what you read online today is pointless. It's not important to your life. It's not going to help you make better decisions. It's not going to help you understand the world. It's not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you. The only thing it's really doing is altering your mood and perhaps your behavior.
The hotels, transportation, and ticketing systems in Disney World are all designed to keep you within the theme park rather than sightseeing elsewhere in Orlando. Similarly, once you're on Facebook, it does everything possible, short of taking over your computer, to prevent you from leaving. But while platforms like Facebook play a role in our excessive media consumption, we are not innocent. Far from it. We want to be well informed. (More accurately, we want to appear to be well informed.) And this is the very weakness that gets manipulated.
“To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”
— Nassim Taleb
I have a friend who reads The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, her local newspaper, and several other publications. She's addicted. She wants to know everything that's going on everywhere and to have an informed opinion. She's just like the rest of us — we all want to know what's going on and have a well-informed opinion. If we're not well informed, then what are we? I don't want to be ignorant, and that's just how I'm made to feel if I'm not keeping up.
Despite that, I've stopped consuming news. At first, it was really difficult. When my friends would start talking about something topical and emotionally charged and ask me what I thought, I'd have to say I don't know. This was followed by a “What!?” and “You have to read this” as they took out their phones to text me a link to an article I would never read. One hilarious aspect of this situation is that they often expected me to stop the conversation with them and read the article so I could share in their outrage. No thanks.
Being well informed isn't regurgitating the opinion of some twenty-two-year-old with no life experience telling me what to think or how outraged to be. Your first thought on something is usually not yours but someone else's. When all you do is consume, you are not only letting someone else hijack and direct your attention; you are also letting them think for you.
Avoid the noise because it messes with the signal. Your attention is valuable, so why spend so much time on stuff that will be irrelevant in a few days? Read what stands the test of time. Read from publications that respect and value your time, the ones that add more value than they consume. Read what prompts you to think for yourself. Read fewer articles and more books. Read books that have stood the test of time, those that are still in print after 20 years or so.
We're afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with our thoughts. That's why we pull out our phones when we're waiting in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store. We're afraid to ask ourselves deep and meaningful questions. We're afraid to be bored. We're so afraid that to avoid it, we'll literally drive ourselves crazy consuming pointless information.
Let's close with this quote by Winifred Gallagher: “Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.”
If I'm not adding value to your life on a consistent basis, you should unsubscribe. Although the irony is that if you unsubscribe, you've just proven that I am adding value.