The Urgent Quest for Slower, Better News | The New Yorker
In 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article with the headline “Overload!,” which examined news fatigue in “an age of too much information.” When “Overload!” was published, Blackberrys still dominated the smartphone market, push notifications hadn’t yet to come to the iPhone, retweets weren’t built into Twitter, and BuzzFeed News did not exist. Looking back, the idea of suffering from information overload in 2008 seems almost quaint. Now, more than a decade later, a fresh reckoning seems to be upon us. Last year, Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of Apple, unveiled a new iPhone feature, Screen Time, which allows users to track their phone activity. During an interview at a Fortune conference, Cook said that he was monitoring his own usage and had “slashed” the number of notifications he receives. “I think it has become clear to all of us that some of us are spending too much time on our devices,” Cook said.
It is worth considering how news organizations have contributed to the problems Newport and Cook describe. Media outlets have been reduced to fighting over a shrinking share of our attention online; as Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms have come to monopolize our digital lives, news organizations have had to assume a subsidiary role, relying on those sites for traffic. That dependence exerts a powerful influence on which stories that are pursued, how they’re presented, and the speed and volume at which they’re turned out. In “World Without Mind: the Existential Threat of Big Tech,” published in 2017, Franklin Foer, the former editor-in-chief of The New Republic, writes about “a mad, shameless chase to gain clicks through Facebook” and “a relentless effort to game Google’s algorithms.” Newspapers and magazines have long sought to command large readerships, but these efforts used to be primarily the province of circulation departments; newsrooms were insulated from these pressures, with little sense of what readers actually read. Nowadays, at both legacy news organizations and those that were born online, audience metrics are everywhere. At the Times, everyone in the newsroom has access to an internal, custom-built analytics tool that shows how many people are reading each story, where those people are coming from, what devices they are using, how the stories are being promoted, and so on. Additional, commercially built audience tools, such as Chartbeat and Google Analytics, are also widely available. As the editor of newyorker.com, I keep a browser tab open to Parse.ly, an application that shows me, in real time, various readership numbers for the stories on our Web site.
Even at news organizations committed to insuring that editorial values—and not commercial interests—determine coverage, it can be difficult for editors to decide how much attention should be paid to these metrics. In “Breaking News: the Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters,” Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, recounts the gradual introduction of metrics into his newspaper’s decision-making processes. The goal, he writes, is to have “a data-informed newsroom, not a data-led one.” But it’s hard to know when the former crosses over into being the latter.
For digital-media organizations sustained by advertising, the temptations are almost irresistible. Each time a reader comes to a news site from a social-media or search platform, the visit, no matter how brief, brings in some amount of revenue. Foer calls this phenomenon “drive-by traffic.” As Facebook and Google have grown, they have pushed down advertising prices, and revenue-per-click from drive-by traffic has shrunk; even so, it continues to provide an incentive for any number of depressing modern media trends, including clickbait headlines, the proliferation of hastily written “hot takes,” and increasingly homogeneous coverage as everyone chases the same trending news stories, so as not to miss out on the traffic they will bring. Any content that is cheap to produce and has the potential to generate clicks on Facebook or Google is now a revenue-generating “audience opportunity.”
Among Boczkowski’s areas of research is how young people interact with the news today. Most do not go online seeking the news; instead, they encounter it incidentally, on social media. They might get on their phones or computers to check for updates or messages from their friends, and, along the way, encounter a post from a news site. Few people sit down in the morning to read the print newspaper or make a point of watching the T.V. news in the evening. Instead, they are constantly “being touched, rubbed by the news,” Bockzkowski said. “It’s part of the environment.”
A central purpose of journalism is the creation of an informed citizenry. And yet––especially in an environment of free-floating, ambient news––it’s not entirely clear what it means to be informed. In his book “The Good Citizen,” from 1998, Michael Schudson, a sociologist who now teaches at Columbia’s journalism school, argues that the ideal of the “informed citizen”––a person with the time, discipline, and expertise needed to steep him- or herself in politics and become fully engaged in our civic life––has always been an unrealistic one. The founders, he writes, expected citizens to possess relatively little political knowledge; the ideal of the informed citizen didn’t take hold until more than a century later, when Progressive-era reformers sought to rein in the party machines and empower individual voters to make thoughtful decisions. (It was also during this period that the independent press began to emerge as a commercial phenomenon, and the press corps became increasingly professionalized.)
Schudson proposes a model for citizenship that he believes to be more true to life: the “monitorial citizen”—a person who is watchful of what’s going on in politics but isn’t always fully engaged. “The monitorial citizen engages in environmental surveillance more than information-gathering,” he writes. “Picture parents watching small children at the community pool. They are not gathering information; they are keeping an eye on the scene. They look inactive, but they are poised for action if action is required.” Schudson contends that monitorial citizens might even be “better informed than citizens of the past in that, somewhere in their heads, they have more bits of information.” When the time is right, they will deploy this information––to vote a corrupt lawmaker out of office, say, or to approve an important ballot measure.