I’ve been mulling over Farhad Manjoo’s recent “State of the Art” column in The New York Times. The paper’s technology writer has gone cold turkey on digitally delivered news, restricting himself to print versions of two national newspapers, his local daily (S.F. Chronicle) and a weekly newsmagazine.
What first sounds like heresy for a tech writer, he has now, months later, eased comfortably into the anachronistic rhythms of morning paper deliveries, describing his metamorphosis this way: “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.”
To be clear, it’s not the outlets he objects to, it’s the platforms. He prefers the tactile version of The Times, with all its bulky, smudgy, ponderous pages, to the clean, whiz-bang alacrity found at NYTimes.com where stories may change by the minute. The daily news cycle he believes allows for more temperate, contemplative, in-depth reporting, stripped of the rumors and assumptions that often fly as fast as the news itself. By the next day, reporters and editors have it mostly sorted out, and the essence of the story will have been properly distilled, analyzed and set in type, a fitting punctuation mark noting the sunset on that day’s coverage. Forget consuming news as if it’s a video game with its bells and whistles distracting from the point of it all. When do we take a breath?
Worse than all that, he contends, is the news delivered via Facebook and Twitter, platforms that are adept at filling the margins of news stories with commentary and bias, and that often put respected news outlets on an equal footing with obscure partisan screeches posing as journalism. The daily paper is a colander for the splash of tweets that wash over smartphones and PCs, letting only the best ones through, if any.
To be honest, it’s easy to relate to Mr. Manjoo’s epiphany. The cadence of once-in-the-morning news eliminates distractions and provides a comfortable predictability to the day. And yet, I’m not about to go back to news delivery circa 1980 (the year I first stepped foot into the work world). I can romanticize about the simplicity of news delivery back then, just as I might reflect fondly on days without voicemail and emails when no one expected you to return messages when you were out of the office, and your to-do list was limited to what could fit in the inbox on your desk. If I were to declare that I no longer was availing myself to these trappings of efficiency, I’m not sure how well that would go over, either with my clients or coworkers.
The point is, there is today an expectation that we stay current with the technology that is out there, and that includes how news is delivered. I have a friend who has gone Mr. Manjoo one better. Following the November 2016 election, he asserts that he has cut himself off from all news – no television news or newspapers or anything digital. He has become a news hermit and declares himself the happier for it. But that can’t be the answer to the waves of news crashing over us either. Our system of government demands an informed electorate, even if staying informed hurts now and then.
The solution no doubt lies somewhere in the middle. I want to stay informed throughout the day, and getting news via Facebook, where I follow a number of national outlets, helps me do just that. But I can’t have it “on” all the time, or it will consume me. We have an internal communications platform in the office called Slack, but I’ve had to opt out of it because the intermittent messages are akin to someone continually tapping me on the shoulder while I am trying to write this. The same for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and whatever else is down the pike. We must find the limits that work for us.
Appropriately enough, I first saw Mr. Manjoo’s Times piece via Facebook. I don’t recall reading any of the comments posted with it or remember whether it got its share of “likes.” But the platform is now the 21st-century equivalent of the end of my driveway. I still get a Richmond Times-Dispatch here every morning. But the breadth and depth of my news is decidedly digital, and while some folks may be able to go back to halcyon days of print only, I’ll continue to have the monster on speed dial.