I used to be a news soldier.
By day, I read dozens of news stories for my job as an editor. By night, I read dozens more for my then-current or assumed-future writing gigs, and for my perpetual gig as deputy assistant knowledge dilettante.
I read 90 percent of the Atlantic, New Republic, and New Yorker issues (front- and middle-of-the-book sections, at least) from 2002 to 2009. I religiously followed Talking Points Memo during the Bush years. Slate, video game blogs, why-am-I-still-reading-this runs of Rolling Stone — anything to fill my professionally and dopaminically mandated info quotas.
But I’m out of the game now. Been out for a couple of years1. I’m a news civilian. And I am lost.
I don’t know how I’m supposed to behave, news-and-information-wise. I don’t know what my news-consumption obligations are as a civilian, as a citizen, as a typical 2010s creative-classer with moderately long work days and a moderately long daily commute.
I don’t know which kinds of news and information I should be consuming, in which quantities, and at which frequencies. I don’t know what constitutes an appropriate amount of news-consumption time, and when that turns into dawdling and procrastination time. I don’t know what I’m allowed to ignore, and what I should feel bad about ignoring.
So I feel bad when I spend a Saturday morning lost in Techmeme, Twitter, and the remnants of my Google Reader. I feel bad on the many more Saturdays when I don’t do this. I feel bad when I neglect local daily news. I feel bad when I tritely let New Yorkers pile up2. I feel bad when my wife (an editor at CQ Roll Call) mentions some congressional to-do I know nothing about. I feel bad when I admit that reading one article does not make me knowledgeable about arc-plasma waste incinerating technology.
Then there are the days when I pick up a Washington Post Express on the Metro or listen to Morning Edition, and I wonder why I’m supposed to care about an apartment explosion in Mexico City or the 179th report of the year from Tahrir Square. The existential chorus chimes in: What’s the point of all this?
Does anyone else feel this way?
Does this stress out other recently civilianed info-people? Do lifelong news civilians think about this stuff?
I can’t believe I’m the only one. The news business’s grinding relentlessness — an unfathomably full Economist and New Yorker every single week; a multi-sectioned newspaper on your doorstep every single day; a mix-metaphored river of news flowing thru yr interntz every single second — sends a pretty definitive message regarding info-consumption expectations. We’re supposed to be information hoarders.
The industry’s recent product innovations have done nothing to change this expectation. Zite, Flipboard, Trove — so many products ostensibly meant to help us manage the river of news. The pitch: Wouldn’t it be great if your news river contained only info-flotsam that interests you?3 Wouldn’t it be great if your news river was clean and picturesque?
Sure — go for it, news-river-management product creators. But frankly, those aren’t my biggest news-consumption problems. I have zero problem finding news that interests me. I bet most moderately web-savvy people younger than 60 can easily find news that interests them.
And while it’s nice to see shared links displayed in an aesthetically pleasing manner, you know what kind of news product I really want? One that adds two hours to my day so I can read all of that perfectly targeted news.
I don’t know if the news business intentionally conditions civilians to be info hoarders. Online news economics certainly call for the “Have all the donuts in the world!” approach to news delivery, in order to garner the requisite page views and time on site. But it may be simpler than that.
News soldiers are information hoarders living and working among other information hoarders. They see info hoarding as the ideal and indeed only appropriate level of news consumption. So they expect the rest of us to consume news in the same way — if they ever stop to consider that there is a “rest of us” in the first place.
Now what are the civilians supposed to do?
1Technically I was still part of the news universe through 2010, but my last year-plus at Publish2 revolved around product management and 14-hour startup days rather than around news consumption.
2I still read every Atlantic and Wired, though. Monthly magazines are so much easier to manage.
3I’ve never been sure whether the news in the “river of news” metaphor is the water itself, or the stuff swimming in/floating on the water.
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