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
• Mother Jones
• The Nation
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.