Why a News Blackout?
(If you’re already convinced or don’t care about my specific reasons, skip to the methods and findings)
I’ve been a news junkie for a decade. The addiction began during my final year of high school as a blend of historical research and discovering left wing news sites. My consumption varied a lot over the years, with my commentary touchstones becoming Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at the Atlantic, Matt Yglesias’ Moneybox at Slate, and Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at WashPost. I followed those guys and the people in their circles from about 2008 until the present.
I watched Coates study WW2 and the Civil War, publicizing his education, learning from the Horde, and become the author of Between the World and Me. I watched Matt and Ezra morph from college bloggers to founding (with Sarah Kliff, an awesome talent but who I didn’t know pre-Vox) a new media powerhouse. I obviously followed a lot of other writers over the decade, but these guys always updated me daily on how to interpret events and their context. I would expect my media consumption to be pretty similar to a lot of folks’ given that this cohort has become as acclaimed as it has. Starting in college, I quasi-trained as and very seriously pretended to be a journalist. I was an editor of the school newspaper and interned at a newspaper in Chile for a summer. For a long time, I could pretend that my media diet was professionally beneficial.
Blogs, Twitter and traditional media figuring out how to transition to digital increased exponentially the amount of news content that was created daily. We truly are living in the golden age of hot takes. And I, for the most part, tried to keep up. Eventually, the daily slog through the even the traditional outlets: NYT, WSJ, Bloomberg, WashPost, The Atlantic, Politico and Vox became too much — there was probably a qualitative change to the media in the Trump era, but I think the volume itself was too high. In response, in early summer 2017,I tried to dial it back by deleting Twitter and the Apple News app and only allowing myself to writers/commentators I liked on Twitter in the browser by googling “WRITER NAME Twitter”. This worked for a while. But my world of writers/commentators I liked just expanded. And all too often, I would fall down link black holes.
Despite my best efforts at moderation, the debate over repealing Obamacare in summer/fall 2017 broke me. We all watched it breathlessly — repeal, skinny repeal, whatever the last ditch Hail Mary was called. Countless adrenaline and cortisol spikes, internecine fights about collaborating on a subsidies fix or some other policy detail. And why not? Healthcare is 20% of GDP (and rising) — bending the cost curve is either important or really fucking important. And you know, lives are at stake.
But, as we all know, in the end, nothing changed. Months of debate. Speculation. Rumors. Scoring. And then. Nothing. What killed me then, and I realized more broadly, was that most “news” is essentially speculative. Beyond that, the expected value of most news stories is ludicrously small in comparison to their coverage. What real benefit did spending…hours…per day reading news and commentary really serve me if a large percentage of the time, nothing actually happened.
At the end of it all, sometime in September, I was leaving for a two week trip through France. Lyon. A drive through the Dordogne and Loire Valleys. A stop in St. Emilion. A few nights in Bordeaux. And a few more in Paris in the Marais. I decided the last thing I needed to do in any of these places was read the fucking news. So I didn’t. And then I didn’t when I got back. And I still haven’t.
Here’s what I did and what I found.
- Do not go on social media. At all. (This is probably good advice generally, but necessary to avoid the most inflammatory news.)
- Do not read anything that can be construed as news including event driven blogs, opinion pieces or features from news outles.
- Do not watch the news (this was pretty easy because I never do).
- Do not engage in conversation with anyone about the news. UNLESS they insist.
- The clear exception to this is ACTUALLY IMPORTANT EVENTS. If the expected value of a story is really, really high, then someone will insist on you knowing about it, despite initial protest. And if anyone breached this threshold, I would allow myself to read about it by googling the topic and reading a few stories at the top of Google News.
- When asked to defend myself, I ask the individual what they think the most important story in the world is. They tell me what they think it is, and unfailingly in turn, ask me. I show them this chart.
And almost without fail, they would admit that they’ve missed the most important human development in the last 20 years.
- The news is really addictive. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in three years, two months and eleven days. I can tell you, that our news environment is as addictive as cigarettes. I’ve quit caffeine for six month intervals. The news is far more addictive than caffeine. Receiving little information bursts clearly gives you a dopamine hit.
Most days when I wake up, I want to check the news. I don’t want a cigarette.
- I haven’t missed much. Every time there was a mass shooting, I would know within a few hours. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I found out about it the next day and was kept informed of the reckoning with workplace sexual harassment as it happened. I will say that I’m still not very informed about the tax bill that finally passed, but from what I’ve gathered from people I trust — it seems to be made out of spider webs and magic, so I expect negative externalities regardless of its intentional distributional and distortionary effects.
- The status signaling effects were mixed. People who I had just met seemed to interpret my lack of engagement with the news as a lack of sophistication or civic spirit. Not being able to hold forth on policy proposals had a status lowering effect. Those who knew me before the blackout seemed to think I was misguided but respected the discipline to stay away.
- I’ve gotten to read a lot more intentionally. The time once devoted to reading political or macroeconomic speculation is now spent on the books I set out to read and the few writers I follow whose work isn’t news-driven.
- I feel considerably less partisan. I know that everyone thinks they’re less partisan than they truly are, and I’m sure that’s true of me too. But, I can admit, I used to be a party hack — even though I was an avowed independent. I now find myself feeling less passionate about either side, considerably more willing to critique the left and willing to hear out right wing intellectuals. I find this…suspicious at best.
It could be that I can spend more time thinking about political issues rather than applying broad heuristics in a rapid fire manner to the 100 pieces of news that hit each day.
Or the outlets I read are much more effective at shaping my beliefs than I would have liked to believe.
- I’m continually shocked by how many people are convinced that the world is getting worse, when it has gotten and is getting dramatically better.
- I want to reiterate: the news feed is more addictive than nicotine. I miss the feed daily in a way that I don’t miss cigarettes.
I’m going to continue on with the news blackout. It’s weird and hard to fight the urge to check the news every day. But the greater control over my time, attention, policy views and blood pressure is worth it.