My Life on a News Diet

Like many liberals, the last presidential election really forced me to think about my own role as an American citizen. In the month or two afterwards, I ended up writing a list of over 50 things that I could do to make this a better country. Of that, I ended up actually doing somewhere around 10 or 15 of them. I’m more engaged with my community in various groups and have met and engaged with people more different from myself. Julie and I have regular donations to community organizations that we think are providing valuable services. Of those changes, I am proud of most of them. However, one that really backfired was trying to become more informed.

After the election, I subscribed to many news sources across every dimension. I tuned into more local news with the San Jose Mercury. I got the global perspective with the Economist. I added right-wing news from The Wall Street Journal. I pushed myself further left by subscribing to Slate Plus. I got more quick takes with NPR’s Up First podcast. I got longer analysis with the Washington Post’s Daily 202.

It seems obvious in hindsight, but I quickly became swamped. I have always kept a relatively clean inbox, but with all of the daily newsletters, I couldn’t keep up at all. Somehow, Wednesday night band rehearsal ended up being my weekly cleanup: I would flip through a week’s worth of newsletters, read a few paragraphs in the rests, and inevitably trash the rest of the emails knowing that I was falling further behind.

There was more to read than I was finding time for. And even in the slivers of time I would dedicate to reading the news, I was still too overwhelmed to dedicate time to think and read carefully about the content. I had to be “efficient” to cover the breadth of news, and my comprehension became proportionally superficial.

So I slimmed down my subscriptions to a more manageable level and began to read the daily news in-depth. And it was really, really depressing. The state of politics created low-level anxiety in my life: it felt like there was a new scandal or injustice every day that I couldn’t meaningfully contribute to. I thought that “being informed”, even if it didn’t feel good, would be more useful, but it really wasn’t. Politics made for solid black humor around the lunch table, but I didn’t feel like the news allowed me to add meaningful insight into discussions or influence opinion.

Around this time, I read Taleb’s The Black Swan, a nonfiction book about the influence of extreme, seemingly unpredictable but hugely influential effects. Getting past his irreverent and arrogant style, he has many interesting insights in the book. However, one particular idea caught my attention: Taleb doesn’t believe in reading the news on a daily basis. He suggests that there’s too much noise at such a granular time scale that humans will tend to over-emphasize narratives and explanations for what is essentially random behavior. From there, we become overconfident about our own knowledge and ability to predict and understand the world.

At another time, I might have laughed off his suggestion, but it actually resonated with me: after having tried to become more informed, I found myself quicker to offer up opinions on news and policy but not meaningfully any more productive from my media consumption. It reinforced a piece I had read awhile ago about Five Things You Notice When You Quit the News.

My effort to reduce the continuous cycle of media went further when I began trimming my podcast consumption. In true KonMari spirit, I did find some “easier” to discard, such as The Political Gabfest, which is delightful and so thoughtful but unfortunately very depressing right now. Going through the rest of my podcasts, I found that most appealed to my sense of curiosity and provided fun trivia for dinner parties. However, the podcast format is so tight that I didn’t find myself having developed much actual depth from the discussion. And like my news reading, I was often listening to podcasts at times when I clearly had no capability to focus on it, such as during work. That was literally noise that I didn’t need.

I haven’t reached some zen-like sense of peace or tranquility from having reduced my typical media diet. While making breakfast and washing dishes, I caught up on Rick & Morty, which is actually fantastic. Before that, I listened to Matthew Colville’s Running the Game series on DMing tips. On top of my adjustment to my evening routine, I have done a lot more reading. In short, I tried to replace regular news with curated content and long form reading. It feels good to not worry about falling behind and needing to keep up. More importantly, the information feels deeper even if delivered in a piece of fiction.

And I haven’t completely abandoned the news. I get the Mountain View Voice for local news and event, the 538’s Significant Digits because it’s fun, the New York Times headlines because they’re a damn good news source, and The Wall Street Journal’s 10-Point guide just for perspective on the last one. Unless there’s a NYT article that catches my eye, I can read all of them in less than 5 minutes a day typically while brushing my teeth in the morning or in a mental break during the workday.

Like many things, it seems like it’s a matter of balance. Whether it was breaking TV news before or checking reddit today, there’s a strong temptation to always keep up with the news and its variable reinforcement schedule. With the current political climate, it feels like it might be the right time to be engaged and informed, but for me, it was the right opportunity to lie back and let it pass right by.

One reply on “My Life on a News Diet”

In the 1990s, when I was in my 30s, I used to subscribe to Fortune and Business Week, so that magazines arrived weekly and biweekly. While many like to be at the bleeding edge of news, I don’t mind being a little bit behind, because more in-depth journalism is more durable, and obsoletes less readily than headline news reports. Reading the hardcopy magazines was practical because I was flying on airplanes regularly, and could work down the backlog.

Now, the only print publication I read regularly is the Globe and Mail. The subscription has the benefit of being outside the U.S., so there are a few syndications from the Wall Street Journal, and others like the New York Times and Washington Post, in addition to the local Toronto news.

I curate my own external headlines by customizing searches on Google News. Sources from Finland and China give me a perspective on events local to other places in the world.

The RSS reader is still better than Facebook in following deeper content. I try to watch out that I’m not participating in an echo chamber, so including writers with whom I don’t always agree is important.

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