2018-04-08 02:13:35 UTC
Why let yourself be brainwashed? Newspapers have been around for hundreds
For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned.
By Farhad Manjoo
March 7, 2018
I first got news of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., via an alert on
my watch. Even though I had turned off news notifications months ago, the
biggest news still somehow finds a way to slip through.
But for much of the next 24 hours after that alert, I heard almost nothing
about the shooting.
There was a lot I was glad to miss. For instance, I didn’t see the false
claims — possibly amplified by propaganda bots — that the killer was a
leftist, an anarchist, a member of ISIS and perhaps just one of multiple
shooters. I missed the Fox News report tying him to Syrian resistance
groups even before his name had been released. I also didn’t see the claim
circulated by many news outlets (including The New York Times) as well as
by Senator Bernie Sanders and other liberals on Twitter that the massacre
had been the 18th school shooting of the year, which wasn’t true.
Instead, the day after the shooting, a friendly person I’ve never met
dropped off three newspapers at my front door. That morning, I spent maybe
40 minutes poring over the horror of the shooting and a million other
things the newspapers had to tell me.
Not only had I spent less time with the story than if I had followed along
as it unfolded online, I was better informed, too. Because I had avoided
the innocent mistakes — and the more malicious misdirection — that had
pervaded the first hours after the shooting, my first experience of the
news was an accurate account of the actual events of the day.
This has been my life for nearly two months. In January, after the
breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time.
I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and
other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print
newspapers — The Times, The Wall Street Journal and my local paper, The San
Francisco Chronicle — plus a weekly newsmagazine, The Economist.
I have spent most days since then getting the news mainly from print,
though my self-imposed asceticism allowed for podcasts, email newsletters
and long-form nonfiction (books and magazine articles). Basically, I was
trying to slow-jam the news — I still wanted to be informed, but was
looking to formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.
It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I
carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on
speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.
Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more
widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed
about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a
dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband
Most of all, I realized my personal role as a consumer of news in our
broken digital news environment.
We have spent much of the past few years discovering that the digitization
of news is ruining how we collectively process information. Technology
allows us to burrow into echo chambers, exacerbating misinformation and
polarization and softening up society for propaganda. With artificial
intelligence making audio and video as easy to fake as text, we’re entering
a hall-of-mirrors dystopia, what some are calling an “information
apocalypse.” And we’re all looking to the government and to Facebook for a
But don’t you and I also have a part to play? Getting news only from print
newspapers may be extreme and probably not for everyone. But the experiment
taught me several lessons about the pitfalls of digital news and how to
I distilled those lessons into three short instructions, the way the writer
Michael Pollan once boiled down nutrition advice: Get news. Not too
quickly. Avoid social.
I know what you’re thinking: Listening to a Times writer extol the virtues
of print is like taking breakfast suggestions from Count Chocula. You may
also wonder if I am preaching to the choir; doesn’t everyone reading this
story already appreciate print?
Probably not. The Times has about 3.6 million paying subscribers, but about
three-quarters of them pay for just the digital version. During the 2016
election, fewer than 3 percent of Americans cited print as their most
important source of campaign news; for people under 30, print was their
least important source.
I’m nearly 40, but I’m no different. Though I have closely followed the
news since I was a kid, I always liked my news on a screen, available at
the touch of a button. Even with this experiment, I found much to hate
about print. The pages are too big, the type too small, the ink too messy,
and compared with a smartphone, a newspaper is more of a hassle to consult
on the go.
Print also presents a narrower mix of ideas than you find online. You can’t
get BuzzFeed or Complex or Slate in print. In California, you can’t even
get The Washington Post in print. And print is expensive. Outside New York,
after introductory discounts, seven-day home delivery of The Times will set
you back $81 a month. In a year, that’s about the price of Apple’s best
What do you get for all that dough? News. That sounds obvious until you try
it — and you realize how much of what you get online isn’t quite news, and
more like a never-ending stream of commentary, one that does more to
distort your understanding of the world than illuminate it.
I noticed this first with the deal Democrats made to end the government
shutdown late in January. On the Jan. 23 front pages, the deal was
presented straight: “Shutdown Ends, Setting Up Clash Over ‘Dreamers,’” ran
The Times’s headline on the news story, which appeared alongside an
analysis piece that presented the political calculations surrounding the
Many of the opinions in that analysis could be found on Twitter and
Facebook. What was different was the emphasis. Online, commentary preceded
facts. If you were following the shutdown on social networks, you most
likely would have seen lots of politicians and pundits taking stock of the
deal before seeing details of the actual news.
This is common online. On social networks, every news story comes to you
predigested. People don’t just post stories — they post their takes on
stories, often quoting key parts of a story to underscore how it proves
them right, so readers are never required to delve into the story to come
up with their own view.
There’s nothing wrong with getting lots of shades of opinion. And reading
just the paper can be a lonely experience; there were many times I felt in
the dark about what the online hordes thought about the news.
Still, the prominence of commentary over news online and on cable news
feels backward, and dangerously so. It is exactly our fealty to the crowd —
to what other people are saying about the news, rather than the news itself
— that makes us susceptible to misinformation.
Not too quickly.
It’s been clear that breaking news has been broken since at least 2013,
when a wild week of conspiracy theories followed the Boston Marathon
bombing. As I argued then, technology had caused the break.
Real life is slow; it takes professionals time to figure out what happened,
and how it fits into context. Technology is fast. Smartphones and social
networks are giving us facts about the news much faster than we can make
sense of them, letting speculation and misinformation fill the gap.
It has only gotten worse. As news organizations evolved to a digital
landscape dominated by apps and social platforms, they felt more pressure
to push news out faster. Now, after something breaks, we’re all buzzed with
the alert, often before most of the facts are in. So you’re driven online
not just to find out what happened, but really to figure it out.
This was the surprise blessing of the newspaper. I was getting news a day
old, but in the delay between when the news happened and when it showed up
on my front door, hundreds of experienced professionals had done the hard
work for me.
Now I was left with the simple, disconnected and ritualistic experience of
reading the news, mostly free from the cognitive load of wondering whether
the thing I was reading was possibly a blatant lie.
Another surprise was a sensation of time slowing down. One weird aspect of
the past few years is how a “tornado of news-making has scrambled
Americans’ grasp of time and memory,” as my colleague Matt Flegenheimer put
it last year. By providing a daily digest of the news, the newspaper
alleviates this sense. Sure, there’s still a lot of news — but when you
read it once a day, the world feels contained and comprehensible rather
than a blur of headlines lost on a phone’s lock screen.
You don’t need to read a print newspaper to get this; you can create your
own news ritual by looking at a news app once a day, or reading morning
newsletters like those from Axios, or listening to a daily news podcast.
What’s important is choosing a medium that highlights deep stories over
quickly breaking ones.
And, more important, you can turn off news notifications. They distract and
feed into a constant sense of fragmentary paranoia about the world. They
are also unnecessary. If something really big happens, you will find out.
This is the most important rule of all. After reading newspapers for a few
weeks, I began to see it wasn’t newspapers that were so great, but social
media that was so bad.
Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and
every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the
social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward
speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over
well-meaning analyzers of news.
You don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with
the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly
from Twitter and Facebook. In the long run, you and everyone else will be
Email: ***@nytimes.com; Twitter: @fmanjoo.