I’ve always been an avid reader of some kind of news. I spent most of my pocket money on PC magazines. When the internet came along, I discovered slashdot.org and heise.de as good sources to keep abreast with tech news. Over the last 25 years, news has become much more available, abundant and seductive. Over time the barriers for news creators lowered. At the same time, growth hacking and click-baiting made it easier to get away with low quality content.
Kara Swisher once told the story of John Hendricks. He is the founder of the Discovery Channel and in their early days needed to get onto cable networks. So he put episodes on air that drew people in with their sensational nature. His one-line summary was: “Nazis and sharks, that’s what got ratings up”. That was in the 80ies.
Right now, we have a global pandemic, an economic downturn, social unrest and a chaotic presidential election going on. It’s Nazis and sharks all over again. And I feel fatigued. Recently re-reading an old piece on Wired “How I Got My Attention Back” gave me the last push to rethink my relationship with news:
There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed. […]
Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised. Though, attention is duplicitous — it doesn’t feel like a muscle. And exercising it doesn’t result in an appreciably healthier looking body. But it does result in a sense of grounding, feeling rational, control of your emotions — a healthy mind. […] We deserve our attention.Craig Mod, “How I Got My Attention Back”, Wired Magazine
Consume slower and be mindful
In that regard, news is like food. We long ago reached the point where there is always more. We have to be more mindful of how we consume both food and news. 1 Cookies, chips and ice cream are always tempting in the aisles of supermarkets. In the same way, there is always something new to read on social media, news sites or newsletters. If we give in to temptation and only consume what is most convenient we will inevitably exhaust ourselves. Ever experienced that empty feeling after watching YouTube-recommended clips for an evening? That’s what I’m talking about.
I realize that being always up to date with the latest takes doesn’t improve my life. The same noise of Nazis and sharks that got John Hendricks onto cable networks is yanking me around. So I observed what works well for me and what doesn’t. Three basic principles emerged:
- Slow things down.
- Be cautious of news that is less than 24 hours old.2
- Exercise a bias towards themes that are likely to be relevant a year from now.
A hierarchy of news
In the spirit of calming my emotional reflexes, a hierarchy of news sources crystalized. At the bottom is seductive but empty content. At the top we have high octane, rich items that will help me learn. The bottom is easier to access, the top takes effort. The art is balancing the diet with lots of the good stuff and dipping into the snack box every now and then. Here is what works for me:
Social media – avoid
I deleted my Facebook account cold turkey in 2017 and haven’t missed it. I install Instagram every few months only to delete it after a day of mindless browsing. I do like TikTok and it is probably the most fun right now. At the same time, it is the most addictive time-suck of them all. I do miss 2004 Flickr with its thriving community. I appreciate WhatsApp as a good tool to keep in touch with friends and family – I only wish it were not owned by Facebook. But in general, I try to limit my time on social media as much as possible.
Twitter – enjoy in small doses
I separate Twitter from the rest of social media. Twitter can be helpful when you spend the time and effort curating the people you follow. But Twitter’s quest of showing you more content to keep you engaged for longer often increases the noise.
Besides, much of Twitter seems driven by the takes that people came up with over the last five minutes. Ultimately, I gave up on Twitter for the most part. 3 Make no mistake, I do miss Twitter. I miss the constant stream of “new”. I miss the randomness, the funny, the smart takes. A lot of links and discussions are valuable. But there is also a lot of pettiness, virtue signaling and divisiveness that I just don’t want to deal with right now. So for the most part, I try to stay away from Twitter and consume it in small doses.
News sites – consume mindfully
The trifecta of my daily news site regimen takes me across Spiegel, New York Times and Techmeme.4 I try to not spend too much time on news sites. I also noticed a long time ago an inverse correlation between my level of contentedness and the number of times I refresh these sites.
To hold myself accountable, I installed Stayfocusd. It is a browser extension that limits time spent on specific websites. The time limits are not that important. What is more helpful is the red icon in the upper right of the browser window. It reminds me to be mindful and leave when I start browsing without intent. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour each day to get the news. If there are interesting long reads, I file them away into Instapaper.
Newsletters and podcasts – subscribe often and unsubscribe ruthlessly
My email and podcast inboxes are sacred territories. Once I notice that newsletters or episodes pile up I unsubscribe without hesitation. If I do miss them, I can always re-subscribe. The following newsletters have now managed to stay on my docket for quite some time:
- Techmeme newsletter: A compilation of the last 24 hours of tech news. They also complement the news with tweet comments from different perspectives. That’s my ground-level view.
- Ben Evans: A weekly selection of tech news, takes and interesting finds. That’s often the 10,000 to 20,000 foot view on the landscape and he connects dots nicely.
- Software Lead Weekly: A weekly newsletter about engineering management and leadership. A typical edition contains links to 10-15 evergreen blog posts with commentary. Often those blog posts are a few years old and still hold up.
The ideal is to consume each new edition within 24 hours.
Blogs – curate and enjoy
I still ♥ old-school personal websites or blogs – people with a passion for a topic writing without a schedule or word count target, what’s not to love. Some of the more professional ones like Kottke, Daring Fireball or Swiss Miss deliver a constant stream of goodness. At the same time, there are those gems where people post only every few months. That is OK. I like varied takes from people who have thought deeply and share their point of view because they care.
Not every blog is a great one, but the great ones are a true delight. Social media has marginalized blogs. But there are still a lot of good ones out there. I keep track of more than a few dozen of them using Feedly.5 Most of them post only a few times a month, so the load is manageable. I pay for Feedly, because I want them to continue to operate and thrive without having to resort to an advertising business model.
Instapaper – file and read at mydiscretion
While I’m a completionist, I’m fine with my Instapaper being an ever-growing pile of articles. I know that I will never read them all. But I also know that there is a lot of good, high-octane stuff – healthy and nourishing. It is removed from the recency rat race, pre-vetted by newsletters, blogs and other sources and not judged upon by any popularity counter. I have no idea what anybody else thinks about an article. They are all in chronological order by which I saved them. Articles often hang in Instapaper for a while before I read them. Some of them don’t stand the test of time and I quickly archive them. And that feels good and pure to me. I know that once I have an hour with an iPad on the couch, Instapaper offers something meaningful to read.
So, there you have it. That’s my news regimen:
- Social media – avoid
- Twitter – enjoy in small doses
- News sites – consume mindfully
- Newsletters and podcasts – subscribe often and unsubscribe ruthlessly
- Blogs – curate and enjoy
- Instapaper – file and read at my discretion
This hierarchy is always evolving. I’m also always hoping for something that makes it easier. But over the years I have found that “easier” is often a flawed concept. The effort you put into curating your news sources pays off, in terms of being an informed citizen and in terms of maintaining mental wellbeing.
There is undeniable value in learning about the world, its current state and how we can make progress. At the same time, there is value in maintaining one’s sanity. As with so many things in life, the art is to get the balance right. There are lots of different approaches that work for different people. The above works for me.
Back in the early 2000s I wrote a thesis on the topic of information overload and the internet. Little did I know what came ahead. ↩
Especially the 24-hour rule is a powerful one. The German military has a rule that before submitting a formal complaint, you must have slept a night over it. It might seem trite, but it is quite meaningful. Most events that produce knee-jerk-like emotional outbursts look very different the next day. A good night of sleep is a great provider of perspective.↩
Yes, they are biased, but so is all news. Someone once told me that the job of a news outlet is to confirm the beliefs of its audience. While it might sound cynical, it is a good check to keep in mind.↩
I am still bitter about Google shutting down Google Reader, but Feedly fills that gap for me.↩