Tag Archives: News

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

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Confessions of a news civilian

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.

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The journalist as curator, revisited: Curating your own content

The idea of journalists, particularly editors, as curators has gained traction as forward-thinking news organizations realize the value of being a trusted filter for readers. (Though there are definitely detractors.) And while more news orgs still need to get comfortable aggregating content produced elsewhere, I think we’ve been missing a big part of the curation discussion: the growing importance of journalists as curators of their own newsroom’s content.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading (*cough* back in the spring *cough*) Martin Langeveld’s vision of how content will flow in future newsrooms, and Matt Thompson’s imagining the difficulties of implementing the alternative workflows such “content cascades” will require.

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The Niche-Reader Fallacy

A reader (uh, my brother) has a response to my post about newspapers’ bad decision-making that helps clarify why papers are often paralyzed by small decisions. As a newspaper reader, he’s unsure of the wisdom of cutting some elements like box scores and TV listings. He writes:

As my students remind me, an awful lot of people (in raw numbers) don’t have fast Internet access or even home access at all. Those box scores and op-ed pages take a long time to load via dial-up. And one of the reasons I subscribe to print newspapers is to have the TV listings as a ready reference without having to go online yet again. The L.A. Times recently dropped its weekly TV guide section, and I’m seriously considering dropping my subscription because that was one of the most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online – a week’s worth of planning in one shot, whenever I wanted.

This is a perfect illustration of one reason newspapers are so sclerotic. Call it the Niche-Reader Fallacy: Newspapers live in such fear of readers canceling subscriptions if there’s any change to the horoscopes, comics, TV listings, box scores, stock tables, Miss Manners, etc., that they end up hanging on to everything for way too long.

Every paper has its own audience, so there’s no single right answer about what to cut and what to save/rethink (though stock tables come pretty darn close to being an across-the-board no-brainer). But part of this isn’t just “what’s more effective on the Web” — it’s “what’s the best use of increasingly limited print space to give readers news that they can’t get anywhere else?”

So yes, box scores may take time to load — but the average person wouldn’t be going online for results from the Arena Football League, horse racing, dog racing, WNBA, MLS, non-major tennis or golf tournaments, boxing, college baseball, and all the other obscure miscellany that takes up sports sections. The people who care about those things will watch SportsCenter or go online, and the average reader won’t care. Those readers would be better served if that space were used for more local investigations or what have you.

As noted in the post, the typical newspaper response to this is fear of making any changes or deletions because those few people who do care about all the box scores (or stock tables, or comics, etc.) will cancel their subscriptions — just as my brother is thinking about canceling his because of the TV listings. The solution isn’t then to cater to every reader’s niche interests — it’s to convince readers that the paper is worth reading for more than just that niche element. (In other words, leave the long tail to the Web.) If the L.A. Times can’t put out a paper that’s interesting enough to keep my brother’s interest once they drop the TV guide, then they don’t deserve his subscription.

Why can’t news be interesting just for the sake of it?

I came across two blog posts yesterday that offer reminders of how the prevailing view of what’s news needs to change.

First, Alan Mutter calls out The Oklahoman for wildly overplaying a story about a U.S. Geological Survey project mapping out where burmese pythons could survive in an ever-warmer U.S. The study found that the pythons “could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast,” according to USA Today. The Oklahoman’s story examined the finding that most of Oklahoma is now a possible python habitat, and concluded in the fourth paragraph that

Even though the pythons might find Oklahoma’s weather suitable, local wildlife experts don’t expect to run into any of the massive constrictors any time soon.

Nonetheless, the piece ran as the front-page lead story with a large, two-deck headline reading: “Big snakes could slither into state.”

The story, of course, says no such thing. Mutter asks, “why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did?” I think the answer — besides simple bad editorial judgment — is that papers fear running interesting stories just for the sake of running an interesting story. There has to be some ostensible “news peg” or other timely reason for running the story.

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The irrelevancy of the nightly news

Caitlin Flanagan has a nice essay in the latest Atlantic about Katie Couric, the Today Show, and Couric’s failure as the CBS Evening News anchor. Flanagan does a good job of explaining why the fluffy-unwatchable morning shows actually mean a lot to a lot of people, and why Couric was so perfect for that role (the piece is ostensibly a review of a part-hit-job Couric biography). But the best part is Flanagan’s tidy put-down of the evening news:

That Katie has bombed at CBS is a testament, not to the existence of a glass ceiling, but to the fact that real revolutions are so thoroughgoing that they don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very questions being asked. … No woman needs to storm the Bastille of nightly news, because the form has become irrelevant: Oprah has immeasurably more cultural, commercial, and political clout than Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, and no young person is ever going to make appointment TV out of a sober-minded 6:30 wrap-up of stories he or she already read online in the afternoon.

That CBS and Couric didn’t realize this — and that newspapers have wasted so much ink (also see: Dan Rather’s fall from grace, Tom Brokaw’s retirement, etc.) discussing an irrelevant institution that few under age, say 58, care about — is as devastating an indictment of the news media as any stock-price or circulation drop.