It will come as no surprise to anyone else who lives on social media, I’ve delegated the responsibility for choosing the news that I read to my friends. In 2016, I rarely sat at my desk, in an easy chair, a cafe bar stool or on any other perch simply to read a newspaper. That wasn’t always the case. I was a religious reader of the Wall Street Journal for many years.
Over the past 25 years, digital streams of information have chipped away at my perceived need to sit down with the paper and really read it. More recently, social media has become a primary source of news. Often, social media leads me to articles in the New York Times and reports from CNN and other television news media, but in those cases, I’m typically consuming a single story, not perusing the full days’ news and putting it all in context.
Reading via social media presents another hazard. I often view only the headline.
Think about that for a moment. The headline is almost certainly abbreviated in such a way as to omit key points of balance. It is also unclear from just a headline, even if I can see who published the article, whether it is an editorial or reported story–a vital distinction for understanding what I’m not reading.
Even scarier, I think, is that internet memes circulating with no provenance or authority are hitting my brain in almost exactly the same way a headline does. An oversimplified statement is dropped into my brain and left there to ripen or putrefy before ultimately being forgotten. Give me ten mindless memes and ten New York Times or Wall Street Journal headlines in ten minutes. Wait ten more minutes. Just ten. Then quiz me. Will I be able to distinguish facts reported from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal from the memes making rounds without a source? I’m quite confident that I’d do poorly on such a test.
This past week, I spent some time trying to find actual copies of newspapers. If you’re like me, you probably haven’t done that in a while. Our local drug store no longer sells papers. The convenience store on Main Street no longer sells them either. The nearest grocery store does, but they were sold out of both our daily local papers. Starbucks was, too. It seems pretty clear that the business of selling newspapers isn’t what it used to be.
That contradicts some key realities. Newspapers are simply amazing. The New York Times published yesterday, on Saturday, included 67 articles. Taken together with the photographs accompanying the stories–many in full color–and you have a book-length collection of professionally written stories, reported from around the world. The price: $2.50.
The Wall Street Journal, with similar girth and breadth of coverage, costs a whopping $4.00. The slightly thinner USA Today was $2.00 and the Saturday edition of the Deseret News, one of our local papers, was free.
So much of the news that we no longer read because it is not on the front page of the paper and may not make the list of most popular articles of the past 24 hours on the publication’s homepage, is important and well-written. You’d be surprised.
The USA Today features a story by Nathan Bomey about the coming resurgence of oil companies. He explores recent bankruptcies and argues that oil companies that have survived recent years are poised for a rebound. That wasn’t front page news but whether you are interested in how to invest your money, how to fuel your car or about climate change, that article might have been interesting to you.
The Deseret News ran a lengthy piece by Eric Schulzke buried in the middle of the paper about America’s aging infrastructure. Inspired by a recent water main break that cost the City of Sandy, Utah $200,000 to repair, noting that the City spends only $1.5 million all year on replacing aging pipes, the piece suggests that the country is ready to fall apart. In 1980, 10 percent of pipes were in “poor shape.” By 2010, that number had reached 45 percent. If you live in the United States, that would be good information to have.
The Wall Street Journal virtually buried a piece by Eliot Brown about Ford’s acquisition of Chariot, a shuttle company, last year, putting it into a broader context of mergers and acquisitions by Ford to cope with a radically changing future that will include driverless vehicles. From this example, Brown explores other examples of old-line firms making acquisitions of startups backed by venture capitalists. The volume of such deals in 2016 doubled compared to 2015. I bet you didn’t see that posted in your Facebook feed.
The New York Times ran a piece by Katie Thomas about a new drug for treating spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that sometimes kills children before their second birthdays. The drug will save lives, giving some children a chance at life that they simply would not have had otherwise. But the treatment isn’t cheap. The first year cost of the drug is between $625,000 and $750,000 with subsequent years needing lower dosages that are expected to cost only $375,000. After reading the piece, I could hardly believe it wasn’t on the front page. Why aren’t we all talking about this over dinner tonight?
The beauty of the physical newspaper is that we can easily see what the editors think is important for us to know. Those stories sit on the front page above the fold so that we can see those stories without even picking up the paper. The stories are organized by topic as well, with sections full of business news, sports news, arts news, and so forth. Newspapers are veritable treasure troves of information that I’ve been too often ignoring.
Now, I will confess, I don’t plan on subscribing to a print newspaper. I have found that the Washington Post app is great at giving me a virtual experience that parallels the print without mimicking it in any way. The app allows me to easily work my way through the paper, skimming some articles, reading others thoughtfully, in depth. It costs much less than a print subscription and I have it with me all the time.
As you may have guessed, I want to invite you to join me this year in reading the newspaper. Pick one that you like and read it. Regularly.