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Experiments: Will reading a physical newspaper improve the way I consume news?

by Tom Johnson on May 18, 2021
categories: technical-writing

Lately I've been trying trying something that I call life experiments. These are goals that I adopt for about 50 days and then evaluate their impact on my life. With this experiment, I decided to stop reading the news on my phone and to instead read a physical newspaper delivered to my house each day.

The experiment

I recently started an experiment of reading print newspapers. I took up a paper subscription for the New York Times, having it delivered on my driveway in a little plastic bag each day. With my wife’s academic discount, this print subscription works out to $40/month, which (even at half off) is not a price I’m used to paying for news. I also canceled my Seattle Times digital subscription and turned off all news alerts delivered to my email, as I try to streamline my news sources.

Now, when I wake up in the morning, rather than click links on my phone for news, I go down and get the paper from my driveway (even at 5:15 am, it’s already delivered). I make coffee and sit down at a small table in my kitchen nook to read the paper. I’m only about a week into this experiment so am still evaluating, but I wanted to write a post about it now while the issues are still fresh in my mind.

Reading a physical newspaper

My dissatisfaction with existing news reading habits

Why this experiment at all? A few weeks ago, either as a mistake or a promotion, I received a paper delivery of the Seattle Times on my driveway. It was the first time I’d read a physical newspaper for years. The experience was novel, enjoyable — almost like making a phone call using a quarter from a phone booth. It made me rethink my existing news-reading habits.

My previous news-reading habits were as follows:

  • Pay for digital access to both the New York Times and Seattle Times
  • Subscribe to news alerts in my email inbox, filtering them into a “newsletter” category that skips my primary inbox but which I periodically check
  • Scroll through feeds in the morning while lying in bed
  • Read other news on my phone during downtime or times of boredom, often lying in bed as well (before bed or when I wake up)

Additionally, I have a Google Pixel phone, and when I swipe left from the home screen, it shows a personalized news feed based on my interests and online searches. So I scan that news as well, though the articles often feel like clickbait and lack depth.

I’m guessing that my existing news-reading habits are mostly the norm these days, but I didn’t feel like they were particularly healthy, especially lying in bed clicking article after article. Here’s what I didn’t like:

  • I don’t like how personalized newsfeeds amplify my existing lens on the world. If I start reading about X, I see more of X. Pretty soon, my view of the world prominently factors in X everywhere. (For example, one time I had read a few articles about Jeff Bezos, and then I started seeing him mentioned in articles everywhere, giving me the false impression that he was frontpage news.) Personalized news feeds give me a distorted view of the world around me, creating a shape of supposed topics I want to see and amplifying the prevalence of those topics. I prefer more of a less-tracked, less-personalized version of world events. I want an unbiased slate of articles that doesn’t try to guess what I want to see.

  • I don’t like lying in bed and click-scrolling articles on my phone in an endless way. This easily leads to clicking links in more newsbaity publications, and soon I shift from reading the New York Times to Reddit or other sources, and my attention is drawn to shortform content that is quirky, bizarre, temporarily jaw-dropping, shocking, odd, etc (the core of social media). I think this click-scrolling habit for short-form shocking content messes with the brain, rewiring it. Also, most research clearly links social media consumption with depression – analysts say, “Don’t spend time passively scrolling through this random feed that’s being suggested to you.” I agree. I don’t like that sense of not wanting to get out of bed and being lured to remain by clicking article after article on my phone.

  • I dislike the news alerts delivered to my inbox in various “breaking news” streams throughout the day. I feel like this creates a state of continuous partial attention, where I’ll check my email during a moment of boredom for a hit of news. This takes me out of my normal task flow and keeps me continuously informed about what’s going on. When news breaks, reporting is often incremental, as more details pile in. This creates more of a sense of entertainment in the news-development process itself. As a result, I’m less likely to be immersed and present in whatever activity or task I’m involved in.

Initial impressions one week into the experiment

In my first week of consuming print newspaper, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to get out of bed. Whereas previously, reading articles on my phone would lull me into remaining in bed for 30-45 minutes after waking up, I now perk up (unfortunately at 5 am) and am out of bed within a 5 minutes or less. My entry into the world is heightened by the idea of getting the newspaper from the driveway and seeing what’s in the news.

I also like the layout of a physical newspaper. The front page lets me know what’s really on the front-page; it’s not a display that has been curated by my existing topic searches and reading habits. Additionally, there’s a sense of hierarchy to the news, allowing me to see what’s more important.

I can also more easily scan print content. I often just read the first sentence of each paragraph, and then abandon the article when it gets dull. It takes about 30 minutes to get through the paper each morning (though not the Sunday edition). I’m still figuring out proper ways to fold and sort the various pages of news. My kids are sometimes intrigued by the comics and crosswords, which is kind of interesting.

Other reasons to reject online news reading

Despite a good first week of print newspaper reading, I’m still deliberating about a lot of things with regards to my experiment. In For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned., Farhad Manjoo (admittedly a writer for the New York Times) explains that he switched his news consumption from online + social media to print newspaper and found it lifechanging. He writes:

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.

His main argument is that when news breaks, there’s a period where details are still cohering and professionals are figuring the whole story out. Yet news organizations, including social media, quickly publish this half-formed news and fill in the details with commentary and opinions, which are often misguided. By “slow-jamming” the news and getting information basically a day later, Manjoo says the stories have had time to harden into a more fact-based, full-pictured story that is much more efficient to consume. You don’t get yanked around in different directions while the news media figures out the news.

Manjoo explains that turning off this incoming stream of half-formed news was “life changing” for him:

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. …

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 fix.

Manjoo’s comment here is a stronger indictment of social media. Does consuming news through social media channels lead to misinformation, polarization, and an information apocalypse? I’m not sure. I was following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mainly through the print newspaper, as this story was frontpage news, and I felt like I was getting facts and insights. But the other night I browsed and saw scene after scene of protests against Israeli atrocities. Social media’s portrayal of the conflict made it seem like Israelis were committing genocide and war crimes, and countries all across the world were holding massive protests in the streets.

At first, I thought, this confirms the bias of social media! In the New York Times reports, I was left more to form my own opinion of the events. But after discussing this with my wife, she sent me an article about bias in journalism — War of words: why journalists need to understand grammar to write accurately about violence. The author explains how passive language can downplay the aggressor’s role, particularly in this conflict. Did Palestinians die in a conflict, or were they killed by the Israel Defense Forces? The author says:

The bad news for journalists is there is no neutral mode. If your words sound neutral, it’s likely you’ve simply avoided laying responsibility for the killings, or have imputed responsibility only indirectly.

This made me question the credibility of the New York Times, a newspaper with Jewish ties, to report objectively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure enough, the next morning as I looked at the latest article on this topic, Mideast violence rages on as Biden Backs a cease-fire, I noticed the subtleties of language. Grammatically, it does seem that the articles more explicitly identify Hamas as the actor killing Israelis, but the actor killing Palestinians is more obscured. In the highlighted passages below, who killed the Palestinians?

Passive language and obscuring the actor

Overall, though, I can’t say that I’ve scoured many articles looking at passive voice or actor clarity, as this is somewhat outside my interests. And I realized that my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue was still extremely superficial. Reading print newspaper didn’t make me much more informed on the issue; that kind of awareness and erudition about world events isn’t going to come from briefly reading a daily print newspaper. It seems one would need to devote a lot more time and study to become informed, which doesn’t really fit with my tech career, since I don’t have hours to ramp up on world issues/events/history. Instead, I would prefer more information about tech news.

And this is where print media starts to fail: there doesn’t seem to even be a Technology section in the print edition, or at least I can’t find it. The Tech articles are instead mixed in with the other sections. And in general, tech news is drowned out by political and world events. By getting a print edition of a newspaper focused on politics, world events, arts, and culture, am I squelching the more techy/sciency news that would be more relevant to my career in tech?

As far as print media for tech, there doesn’t seem to be much beyond monthly magazines, such as Wired. (Wired does does have daily tech news online, but you can’t have a daily print edition delivered to you.)

Other observations about news priority

As I thought more about bias in print media, I started to wonder who curates the articles on the frontpage news? Who decides that a world event is more important than another? For example, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more newsworthy than China landing on Mars, or Elon scaling back the acceptance of bitcoin payment for Tesla?

I decided that I needed to balance out the New York Times with some tech/science news, so I upgraded my Feedly subscription to Feedly Pro and started to curate more RSS feeds. There’s really no one-stop-source for all tech news because tech has so many different angles and specializations. I might not care about the latest releases in cryptography or smartphone devices, but others might. I have about 100+ tech feeds in Feedly, and I let Feedly tell me which articles are the most popular. This kind of AI algorithm seems to take news in a direction that print media lacks.

With print media, an editorial board decides what goes on the front page. With online media and RSS aggregators, the AI algorithm is the editorial board, and it can surface articles by popularity or by other factors. In fact, Feedly has a feature called Leo that lets me influence what surfaces at the top of the feed streams. Are popular articles more worthy of being frontpage news? Not always, but sometimes an interesting article is more relevant to me than a newsworthy one.

Here are the most popular articles from my tech feeds in Feedly:

Popular Feedly articles

Even with curation by the most popular articles, one still has to do a lot of scanning and quick reading to pick out what’s truly noteworthy and relevant. Interestingly, as I write this, the front page tech story on the New York Times, To Get in China, Apple Swallowed Hard Bargain, isn’t even in my Feedly list of most popular articles.

I’m still figuring out the best way to surface articles in Feedly, but this finding and surfacing effort requires a lot more active input than simply picking up a newspaper from my driveway. The problem is, the more actively I fine-tune the Feedly algorithm to surface relevant news, the more I return to the initial problem of amplifying only the kind of news I want to see. What I really want is for someone to pick out the top 5 most noteworthy, significant events happening in the broad tech domain each day. (For this, the TLDR: byte-sized news for techies, an email-delivered daily newsletter consisting of about 500 words total, probably fits the bill, but it’s not very satisfying.)

Other drawbacks to print

There’s another drawback to print that I can’t quite wrangle. I seem to wake up every day at around 5 am, whether due to birds singing, the need to pee, cats jumping around, or from sheer habit. Previously, I would read a few articles on my phone, get bored/tired, and sometimes fall back asleep (or sometimes not). But with my new print newspaper-reading habit, because I would get out of bed, get coffee and toast, and start reading the paper, I was totally outside of my sleep area and so didn’t make any attempt to fall back asleep.

Unfortunately, with this ritual of waking at 5 am (going to be the night before at 11 pm), I frequently crashed at around 2-3 pm. Without enough sleep, my motivation would tank in the afternoons. As it gets later in the week, my energy level eventually plummets. So it seems there might actually be a benefit to clicking and scrolling on my phone in bed after all, if you can get back to sleep. (Note: I have tried reading the print newspaper in bed, but folding the pages is much harder while lying down on my side, and it makes a lot of noise, which wakes up my wife.)

By the way, when reading a print newspaper, the articles aren’t fully readable in a linear way, as one might assume. Stories begin on one page but often continue on A8 or B4 or something, so if you want to read the entire article, you have to flip several pages in, squint to see the page number, then fold it open to that page, all while remembering where you started so you can revert where you left off after finishing the article. It’s not a great experience, which isn’t something I realized. I thought print media wouldn’t involve a bunch of jumping around akin to clicking hyperlinks online. Also, try doing all this opening, folding, and page-finding silently in bed, lying horizontally. There’s a reason people often read newspapers at the table.

Update a few days later …

Normally, I let my goal play out for 50 days, but late last week I returned to the office, driving in from Renton to Seattle. The first day I returned, I completely forgot about my newspaper on the driveway, and I listened to the news on the radio. The second day back in, I picked up the newspaper but didn’t read it, instead preferring to listen to news more casually while driving in.

I’d forgotten that the commute is the main way to consume news. Without the commute, the morning newspaper reading ritual made more sense, but now with the commute, there’s no need for print newspaper anymore. I scaled back my subscription to digital only plus print on Sundays (because it was about the same price as digital only). Also, I feel that whatever amount of news I can listen to within 20 minutes or so is plenty for me. After that, I’m ready to switch into tech-comm mode.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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