Day 5 of paid-only news

Publishers, you have a product problem. Some more notes on my experiment of reading only news I pay for:

  • Big news is easy to find. When I picked this week to change up my media diet, I knew it was going to be a heavy news week. I had thought that relying on fewer sources might make me feel less informed. But the truth is that it’s a whole lot easier to follow big news stories because largely everyone is covering the same stuff. And, in fact, in the case of yesterday’s Kavanaugh hearing, all I really needed to follow the news was a video stream. (I did find myself on Twitter a bunch, but that was for the live commentary — always Twitter’s strongest suit, imho — not really to find out any new information.) If I felt like I wasn’t seeing anything, it was the many, many takes that big breaking news events will spawn and there are far too many takes, hot or not.
  • RSS to the rescue! After day 2, it was clear I needed a better way of reading the news than directly on publisher websites or apps. Using a Feedly account to follow just the outlets I subscribe to has been fantastic. It’s exactly the all-in-one experience I was looking for. Not only do I have that place to go when I’m looking for something to read for the 15 minutes while I’m eating lunch, I also feel like I am reading the publications I pay for far more deeply than if I went to them directly because of how bad they are at showing me the breadth of what they publish.
  • I am in login hell. I am so so sick of entering passwords! If not for the auto-fill features on my phone and in my browsers, I would have abandoned this experiment a couple of days ago. I can’t really describe how much friction pay-walled publications create for their paying customers to get what they paid for. I am constantly entering my account credentials and having to click through warnings about reaching metered paywall limits. It’s an atrocious system, one which truly seems to be built more for people who read for free rather than the ones who pay. As long as this is the case, the future of journalism will not be paid.

Day 2 of paid-only news

After all of yesterday’s excitement, today felt downright tranquil. Here are a few notes from my second day of relying only on news I pay for.

  • It’s really quiet out there. Maybe too quiet. With no high-drama break news stories — as well as, for me, a busy day of meetings and running around the city — I experienced something I haven’t felt in a while: a slow news day. And on days like this, it’s really tough to get a sense of “what’s going on right now” through the outlets I follow. App homepages aren’t updated all that often, and they all carry the same story.
  • I’m reminded that there is more to newspapers than news. With little in the way of major breaking news, I did find myself reading more deeply through my NYT app. The feed feature, which allows you to follow topics and columnists, does a decent job (though I wish it had more topics) and surfaced a review of Mr. Inbetween that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise while going to the World section reminded me of the old joy of the foreign news feature that ran on A3 when I discovered this interesting story about a same-sex romance on Vietnam’s version of The Bachelor.
  • My inbox is drowning in mediocre newsletters. After signing up for so many different digests, I feel like I’ve been spammed. Most of these newsletters are just automated story feeds, no better than opening an app or visiting a homepage.
  • I’m gonna need an RSS reader. Maybe it’s just news detox, but the urge to check “the latest” when I have 30 seconds of downtime is still strong and right now it’s a bit of an unscratchable itch. I think what I am going to do is build a Feedly profile that only has feeds from the publications I pay to read and see if that does the trick.

Day 1 of paid-only news

Man, what a wild news day! Or at least I think it was: In my first full day of relying only on news I pay for, my brain felt considerably less plugged into the usual whirlwind of Trump’s crazytown, but I can’t say I felt any less informed. A few notes from my paid-only news diet experiment:

  • One thing I am definitely less informed on is the meta-narrative of how news develops. I got the news alerts that Rod Rosenstein was likely out and then checked the NYT and WaPo a couple times and saw that he’s staying until at least Thursday. I missed what I’m guessing was a whipsaw on Twitter in between. 
  • While I don’t feel like I’m missing much news (yet), I do feel like I’m missing the experience of the news. Early on Twitter offered me the thrill of not just being in-the-know but something that felt like participating in a breaking news story. I now know that sensation is one of the illusions conjured by social media platforms, but most importantly, I don’t miss it. I’m OK reading the news rather than living it. 
  • I’m really out of practice in finding news after growing so accustomed to news finding me. The day’s big stories found me thanks to alerts and homepages (and also: newsletters—I signed up for a bunch of newsletters from the publications I subscribe to). But it’s really tough to find the more specialized news that I care about. For instance, news of the launch of The Markup and a report on Vox’s revenues first reached me as links sent by friends. Partly I’ve lost the muscle memory of knowing which page of a printed newspaper to go to or cycling through a few bookmarks or homepages. But it’s largely because news apps aren’t built for browsing: I couldn’t find those stories displayed anywhere in the  WSJ and NYT apps and had to resort to searching.  

Why I’m trying a “you get what you pay for” media diet

My news habits have been changing radically these past two years, partly because of shifts in the journalism landscape, partly because of the political moment, and partly because of the kind of work I’ve been doing. My new year’s resolution was to cut way back on news I get from social media. As is the case with most such resolutions, I was really good keeping at it … for a few months and then I backslid: nine months later, if I want to know what’s going on or just look for something to read, I most often turn to Nuzzel, a very good app that aggregates links from Twitter and sends me alerts whenever people I all tweet the same link.

If I wanted to try to get back on course with my new year’s media diet resolution, the most obvious thing to do would be simple: delete Nuzzel. That would probably solve the main problem I have with a trending news: it creates a monoculture of news, where each news cycle only has room for one or two stories. And that defeats the reason I was originally most excited to use the internet: it made me feel like my world was larger, not smaller.

[As for social media itself, while I never really used my (now deactivated) Facebook account, I am proud to say my use of Twitter itself is way down. I nearly never look directly at my feed and have turned it into a one-way platform by getting SMS notifications of likes and retweets for the tweets I post usually via my iPhone’s share functions. The things I miss are your personal news (sorry) and funny one-liners (sorry not sorry).]

In my search for news sources that aren’t driven (at least directly) by social media trending topics, I’ve found three promising contenders: Feedly, Apple News, and (much to my surprise) the Google app.

Feedly has been a throwback to the way I experienced news in the mid-aughts, or my peak Google Reader era: drinking from a fire hose. RSS readers are still a good way to feel like I’ve seen everything that’s out there, but the ratio of signal (stuff I’m interested in and am pleased to discover) to noise (sheer randomness: recaps of Anaheim Angels games or Maryland crime stories) is very, very low. That was a fair price to pay back when I was editing news sites but less appealing now. And while RSS has the strength of being very customizable, it still has the same old weakness of being a pain to set up. It doesn’t help that Feedly has, in its quest to become a more user-friendly news source, has made it more difficult for power users like me to fine tune their feeds.

Apple News has been, with all that Apple product sheen, a very nice experience. And I like the balance of top news with (seemingly random) content modules built around topics I’m interested in. It even gets it right between giving me topics I explicitly follow and its “Siri suggestions” which more often than not scratch the itch of serendipity. The one knock on it I have, though, is that it seems to be getting more similar to the trending topics of Nuzzel as I use it more. It may be because their algorithms are including more social media trending topics. Or it could be my own fault for tapping on too many of those kinds of stories (which after all go viral for a reason). But at any rate, the news in Apple News is feeling less different than the news I get in Nuzzel.

Google’s main app is primarily about searching and isn’t really meant to be a news app at all. And it’s nowhere near being the place I’d turn to find out what’s going on in the world. But its use of cards to guess information that I’d be interested in before I search means it shows me a bunch of stories, some topics I told it I wanted to follow (like my favorite sports teams) and some from my search history. It’s very creepy! But you know what? It’s also pretty good. I find a lot of stories I am interested in that I don’t see on my other news sources. It’s not a first read, but as a second read of feature-y material, it’s pretty good. (And pretty creepy.)

So, if I simply gave up Nuzzel today, those are the sources I’d probably revert to as my go-to online news sources. (Worth mentioning here are two other big changes in my news diet outside the web: My appetite for late-night news satire has entirely evaporated since 2016. I used to be a regular Daily Show/Stephen Colbert/John Oliver/Samantha Bee viewer. I now can’t remember watching an episode or even a YouTube clip. The biggest addition has been radio: I usually turn on the BBC World Service when I am looking for good background noise and if they’re airing something I’ve already heard, I turn to NPR One.)

But I’ve decided to try out another, more drastic change first: I’m only going to read news that I pay for.

I am fortunate to be able to afford a lot of subscriptions. Currently, the ones I carry are:

• The New York Times
• The Washington Post
• The Wall Street Journal
• The New Yorker
• New York
• The Atlantic
• Vanity Fair
• Wired
• Mother Jones
• The Nation
• Harper’s
• Howler

There’s a lot of well-considered concern about what will happen to the general public’s access to journalism if every publication raises a paywall (more on that in a moment) but the fact is that right now I feel like I subscribe to publications out of a desire to support then rather than to, you know, supply myself with reading material. Most of the print magazines that arrive in my mailbox end up unread in stacks, guilty reminders of how little I read the publications I subscribe to. So I am skeptical that my “you get what you pay for” experiment is going to last very long. There are lots and lots of very good free publications out there, after all. I am giving it a week and then will see how it works out. Some of what I am wondering: Will I feel like I’m worse informed without the free web? Or will I read the publications I read more deeply? Will I be spurred to subscribe to more? Or will I feel like some of these deserve the chop? And where am I going to get news on the niche topics I follow, like the Brooklyn Nets, my local news, and of course media world gossip?

Here are some rules I’m setting for myself:

1.  I’m deleting all the apps I normally use to peruse free news: so long, Nuzzel, Apple News, Feedly, and even you Google.

2. I am going to unsubscribe from the newsletters and notifications from the free sites I’ve signed up for: bye bye Axios and Politico (including, sadly, the wonderfully informative Morning Score newsletter)

3. To turn the publications I subscribe to into primary news sources, I can take advantage of what they publish freely on the web, including their newsletters, blogs, and alerts.

4. If a paid site links out to a free site, I can follow — I’m not trying to seal myself into a hermetic bubble after all.

5. If I need more news, I will pay to subscribe or turn a free site into a paid site by signing up for as a Guardian or Slate Plus member.

The main reason I want to try a paid-only media diet is that the current form of digital advertising is at the root of many of the problems I have with the news I read: the algorithms that create trending news were created to drive ad sales for platforms; publishers are crippling their websites with ad-tech to maximize their revenue per page; search and social optimization prioritizes quantity over editorial quality and has created a bland sameness to stories no matter who’s writing and publishing them.  I’m not against advertising on principle. In the mid-century heyday of magazines, the big beautiful full-page ads could be as much a part of the draw as the articles. But while you could once think of advertising as simply something you could, if you wanted, set aside and ignore (like discarding all the glossy supplements stuffed into a Sunday paper), digital advertising is fundamentally changing editorial, especially at publications who rely on it as their sole revenue source.

So, as simply an experiment, reading paid-only news is my best attempt to reduce my reliance on ad-supported media. I don’t believe that, at least on an industry-wide basis, subscription revenue will ever get big enough to replace advertising dollars. But I can imagine a future where we think of quality journalism as a niche, user-supported endeavor (if it doesn’t already describe the present). After decades of “information wants to be free” thinking and a generation growing up used to free access to high-quality journalism, there are many who fear for a democracy in which only those who can afford to pay to subscribe to quality journalism. This argument has some admirable aspirations, but I think it’s based on some predictably unrealistic premises. Nearly every mass media technology has been introduced with utopian promises of democratizing high-minded culture: the printing press was going to spread the word of God before the wild success of bawdy novels; records were going to allow the masses to appreciate opera in the comfort of their homes before it invented top 40 pop; radio was going to broadcast college lectures before it gave rise to right-wing talk radio; cable television channels would carry performing arts before it was home to real housewives. So no one should be surprised that the web has, aside from a few gems here and then, devolved into a gutter of low-brow, low-nutrition information. That happened to UHF, too.

A paid-only news culture would be a loss of the original dream of an open internet, but I see it more of a reversion to the mean, not a descent into some newfound dystopia. Way back in 1995, for instance, the only free news one was likely to get was broadcast TV and radio. Print publications might have gorged on ad revenue back then, but unless it was an alt-weekly or penny shopper, if you wanted to add something to your reading diet, you had to pay.

“Fuck that!” is about as good a motto as any for the Trump presidency.

Updates on my new media diet

I started collecting roundups of five interesting stories primarily as a sort of journal entry for my efforts to revamp my media diet to cut down on trending news. Like most new year’s resolutions and attempts at daily (or even semi-occasional) blogging, I wasn’t able to keep to a regular schedule on the link roundup for more than a few weeks. But I am happy to report the underlying project is going well and that my media diet has changed significantly — for the better, I think.

What’s been most interesting about cutting down on social media (which for me is mainly Twitter) has been disentangling all of the different ways it had embedded itself in my life. It was my source of breaking news (now largely supplied by Nuzzel alerts), a messaging platform (via DMs, which I still receive, but as emails or SMS texts), and a publishing platform (which is why I started using WordPress again). For news, I am trying to rely more on reading publications directly via apps on my phone or Apple News if I want a fix of broad-based news, reading people’s various curated newsletters, and listening to radio programs like BBC World Service throughout the day. At my most luxurious, my most rewarding news experience is something from a media diet I had given up years ago: scanning RSS feeds on Feedly.

But in recent weeks, I feel like I’ve moved past the point of trying to substitute for things I was missing after cutting down on Twitter and the regrowth of something I had long missed: serendipity. As the slice of publications I read gets more random, somewhat unexpectedly, the more connections appear. Instead of that feeling that Twitter or Nuzzel is constricting my news purview down to whatever the handful of trending stories are at any given moment, a broader (even if typically haphazard) survey of the news has made the world seem much larger again.

So I am going to try a reformat of my five interesting stories selection for a while to emphasize the serendipitous connections and present them as thematic “bundles”: five stories I discovered some other way than a trending news algorithm, just as before, but selected because they somehow speak to each other. Sometimes that’ll be obvious, other times less so. And it will ensure I’ll continue to write these pretty irregularly. But I hope it also makes for a more enjoyable read for anyone who happens to be following along.

5 interesting stories: On the edge

You don’t often think of slums and Luxembourg together: the tiny nation has about the same population as Milwaukee but one of the world’s highest per capita GDP (nearly twice the U.S.) and one of the lowest poverty rates. But, just a block away from the main train station in its largest city, also named Luxembourg (pop. 76,420), is a street called rue de Strasbourg which is known as an open-air market for sex and drugs. The surrounding neighborhood, Quartier Gare, is the only area in the country’s nearly 1,000 square miles called out in the U.S. State Department’s guidelines as an “area of concern” for American travelers. (Sure to offend New Yorkers, it’s been not-so-affectionally nicknamed “the Bronx.”) But Bloomberg’s Stephanie Bodie reports that a quirk of geopolitics — Luxembourg’s popularity as a relocation destination for bankers looking to leave the U.K. ahead of next year’s Brexit — is driving up housing prices throughout the Grand Duchy and spurring luxury residential development even in marginal areas like rue de Strasbourg. “These days, all neighborhoods in Luxembourg are being explored,” one real estate agent tells Bodie. In a process familiar to New Yorkers, who’ve seen countless neighborhoods go from all-but-forgotten to hubs of strollers and BMWs, the denizens of Luxembourg’s seedy streets will be pushed aside. Even the nickname is getting an upgrade: sales materials now refer to the area as “Soho.” Today, five recent stories in the news from life on the edges and what gets left behind.

(This is a revamped part of my new year’s resolution to rely less on social media for news; please sign up here if you’d like to receive these by email.)

  1. Russia’s presidential election may have been a sham, but in the provincial agricultural areas, far from the major cities, the support for Putin is very real. In part, farmers are grateful for a geyser of agricultural subsidies that have bolstered the regional economy. But the desire for him to retain control of the country — even as dictator for life — also stems from a strong cultural identification with Putin and a shared sense of victimhood (in this case beset by a “Russophobic” West) that only he can fight against. As one local farmer succinctly puts it: “Putin came in and straightened everything out, and things got better.” “Meet the voters in Russia’s heartland who are about to give Vladimir Putin another six years in office” (Los Angeles Times)
  2. In Israel’s own periphery, in development towns like Kiryat Malachi which are home largely to Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, Isabel Kershner looks at why support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains so solid despite his mounting legal woes over corruption allegations over accepting gifts such as cigars, jewelry and backroom deals for favorable media coverage. The reasons are by now familiar: a kinship with Netanyahu’s identity as the underdog who overcame, in this case, the liberal, urban Labor elites. “The more they attack us, the stronger we get,” says one greengrocer. “We are all Bibi,” says a hairdresser. “Let him have a cigar. He deserves an airplane.”“In Israel’s Poorer Periphery, Legal Woes Don’t Dent Netanyahu’s Appeal” (New York Times)
  3. In a Q&A, Robert Wuthnow, author of The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, explains to a skeptical Sean Illing why we should pay attention to the sense of victimization in rural America when they weren’t so much left behind as decided not to keep up. “They value their local community,” Wuthnow says. “They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small and closed. Maybe they’re making the best of a bad situation, but they choose to stay.” “A Princeton sociologist spent 8 years asking rural Americans why they’re so pissed off” (Vox)
  4. In the remote Bishigram Valley in northern Pakistan, Zafar Syed found what he reports are the last three speakers of the Badeshi language. “A generation ago, Badeshi was spoken in the entire village,” one says. “But then we brought women from other villages [for marriage] who spoke Torwali language. Their children spoke in their mother tongue, so our language started dying out.” Today the three elderly men do most of their business in Pashto and even they are beginning to forget their native tongue. “Badeshi: Only three people speak this ‘extinct’ language” (BBC)
  5. In rapidly depopulating areas of Japan, a country where 40 percent of the population will be older than 65 by 2050, massive wild boars are moving in where people no longer want to live. “Thirty years ago, crows were the biggest problem around here,” one farmer tells Anna Fifield, “but now we have these animals and not enough people to scare them away.” “Japanese towns struggle to deal with an influx of new arrivals: wild boars” (Washington Post)

The Republican political problem is Republican, not Saccone

I mentioned this last night, but in the clear light of day, it’s striking how the GOP spin to explain why Conor Lamb was able to eke out a victory in a district that Trump won by 20 points all come down to the current fundamental weakness of the GOP political brand. In Playbook, the summation of the official Republican talking points basically cedes away what anyone would have listed as the top Republican assets: Trump, money, messaging. All were deployed, in full force, on behalf of Rick Saccone, to little effect.

Saccone defeats Trump! Expecting a poor showing in the Pennsylvania special election, there was already a lot of GOP prebuttal going around that Rick Saccone is a uniquely terrible candidate. But think about that line of argument from another angle: how weak is Trump politically that his coattails can be undone by an underwhelming House candidate? Check around: underwhelming House candidates are a dime a dozen.

About that tax bill… here’s a remarkable report on how Republicans have abandoned their signature legislative achievement in the tightly contested Pennsylvania special election. This chart showing the percentage of ads for Rick Saccone mentioning the tax bill is dramatic, from two-thirds of all ads down to zero:

So what’s Plan B? Well, the same thing that’s been underlying the Republican Party for years now: xenophobic attacks on immigrants. “The mission right now is base turnout,” Cory Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, tells Politico’s Kevin Robillard.