A few months ago I wrote about the one good reason to read the news. With tragic news reaching us every day from across the globe, it remains as important as ever to commit to caring about what’s going on in the world – but knowing how to do that isn’t necessarily straight-forward. As a follow-up to my last post, I want to explore what it means to be a responsible news consumer and actively engaged with current events. I write this because my knowledge of world events is lacking (despite spending a large amount of my time online) and I am trying to navigate the overwhelming volume of news available to me.
Everyone, across all age groups, is reading daily newspapers less than they were 10 years ago. Amongst 18-24 year olds, only 20% read a daily newspaper yesterday, and 25-34 year olds hardly more, at 21%. The source of people’s news is changing.
The format of news has changed as well. News is less tied to a particular time now (e.g. the morning paper, or the 6 o’clock news). In university, I remember learning about the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, and how revolutionary it was in 1980 to have news broadcast on air by CNN within hours of its occurrence. But the 24-hour news cycle has taken on an entirely different meaning since the Internet. Updates are instantaneous, breaking news is reported within seconds, and accuracy is secondary to immediacy. Under pressure to generate news every hour, sites will produce 10+ pieces with slightly different angles on the exact same story, repackaging old information, rather than offering something new.
There’s also the odd juxtaposition of important breaking news with tabloid-level link bait, put there to keep you clicking around the site to keep ad revenue up, and the newspaper alive. As entertaining as the BBC’s most-read stories of the day might be (‘Report details Palin family brawl’ and ‘Students urged to urinate in shower’ being two recent examples), reading them takes time and energy that might have been better funnelled into the same site’s in-depth coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.
In this confusing world where we are simultaneously over-exposed to and under-educated on world events, being well-informed takes determination. Using the news to educate yourself is hard work. But it doesn’t have to be impossible; it just requires more purposefulness than sitting down with the morning paper did 30 years ago.
Without further ado, here is the process I’m walking through as a millennial (whose heart and head say to read the news, but whose lifestyle and attention span sometimes get in the way) to become a responsible news consumer.
One of the best ways to consume the news in a productive way is to purposefully develop the habit of getting it at regular intervals when we have time, energy, and the attention-span to digest it.
If we consume the news in a haphazard as-and-when fashion (the way it comes to us via the Internet), we can end up (1) catering to our short attention spans by focusing on superficial and unimportant stories, (2) reading the news when we should be doing other things, or (3) not giving ourselves enough time to understand or engage with what we’re reading.
Though we no longer have news in the same time-boxed way we used to, we can still limit our news consumption to certain times in our schedule. Rather than trying to keep pace with the breakneck speed of 24-hour news, we can take advantage of our easy access to the news by scheduling it into our lives.
A 30 minute commute is the perfect length of time to listen to an episode of BBC World Service’s Global News, which gives a broad overview of world happenings in the last 24 hours. Fifteen minutes of a lunch break could be enough time to skim the New York Times app and read one or two stories. I’ve personally found that Saturday mornings are a great time to fill in my news-reading gaps from the week, and do so at a more leisurely pace.
Regardless of exactly when and how you consume the news, the basic principle is to make a habit of it. This both helps put news consumption within healthy boundaries (so you aren’t feeling constantly behind on the overload of news coming out at any given moment), and gives you time to meaningfully engage with what you’re reading.
Limit your sources
If the overload of news stories wasn’t enough to deal with, having the option to read slightly different versions from umpteen news sites is enough to make anyone want to pull their hair out. While it’s good to read widely to get a well-rounded perspective, it’s helpful (for sanity’s sake) to curate a small number of trusted publications and largely stick to those.
Find sources that will help you stay informed on global news, local news, and also offer in-depth reporting that allows you to delve a bit deeper on certain topics. Find highly-respected sources, but also look for writing you will actually read and engage with (lofty reading ambitions are no good if we never actually get around to reading).
Develop your reading schedule around 3-5 curated sources. Perhaps your morning commute is a general overview with BBC Global News, then you skim your local newspaper and read a piece from The Guardian during your lunch break, reserving Saturday mornings for deeper news analysis from The Economist. To some, this schedule might sound a bit intense, but if you used it to replace the mindless BBC skimming at work, or the time spent getting distracted by the Life & Style pages on the Huffington Post, you might end up actually saving time, and being more informed.
As a generation raised on the Internet, many of us are unwilling to consider paying for our news. But the truth is that sometimes quality news reporting is worth paying for. Not only that, but sometimes it’s worth the price simply to put good quality journalism within easy reach. When it’s already a challenge (as it is for me) to actually read the news regularly, any barriers (like pay walls) can be enough excuse to simply give up and find something easier to read (and normally less useful). The price is worth paying just to keep ourselves committed to forming good habits.
And the price isn’t necessarily extortionate. A full subscription to the New York Times, for instance, is £10 a month. The Economist (print + online) will cost you £1 a week. Even if these prices are too high for your personal budget, there are options for gaining full access for free through your library (I can get The Economist on my phone free this way).
Pay for your news shouldn’t be considered just a luxury, either. The truth is that the reason we’re seeing annoying link-bait next to real news is because that is the level to which news sites must stoop to stay afloat. Paying for the news, though alien to many of us, is an investment in the type of journalism we want to keep reading. That doesn’t mean that every free site is worthless (one of the best news innovations of our time has been the increase in citizen reporting via blogs and Twitter, after all), but if being informed people is a value we hold, maybe we need to start considering putting our money where our mouth is.
If you’re a millennial and would like to share your personal news-reading strategy, I’d love to hear about it. Please share.