The tech columnist at the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo, spent the first two months of 2018 only getting his news from print sources. The experiment seems a bit counter intuitive to what a technology reporter should do. Why would someone surrounded by high-tech gadgets want to get his news in this low-tech, antiquated way?
The experiment seems to have yielded two conclusions. The first, which he readily acknowledges, is that it allowed him to get news at a slower rate, or “slow jam the news,” as he calls it. This allowed him to spend his time doing other things, rather than react to each news alert and post on social media. The results, he admits were quite dramatic: “I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.”
This is a common theme in the discourse of “being disconnected” from our digital devices. Disconnecting, the thinking goes, will allow us to live life at a more human (and humane?) pace, one more naturally attuned to our physiology and our psychology. Perhaps, there is a truth to that, but we humans are quite adaptable. These same arguments were made when newspapers were around: “how can anyone process so much news that fast?” Today, we make those same arguments to digital news.
The second conclusion he reaches is that he now gets higher-quality news. His new print-only news diet directed him to “looking to formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.” He lists New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the weekly newsmagazine, The Economist as the ones he chose to subscribe to and read regularly. The result was that he felt better informed.
I don’t doubt that Manjoo is getting better news through these sources, but it’s not their print-first format that makes them so reputable: it’s the professional journalists who write for them. Being a journalist is like being a physician in that both professions train intensively and are both committed to the truth. A journalist learns methods for investigating and adheres to practices to present information in a responsible way, not unlike the physician’s long program of study prepares her to follow a proper course of treatment and adhere to a patient’s well-being.
Perhaps, it’s no coincidence that the Internet and born-digital “news” outlets have brought us so much junk news (or “fake news,” in the parlance of our times) over the years, as well as the junk science that feeds the anti-vaxxers and the anti-medicine crowd. The barriers of entry to start propagandistic and fraudulent websites are pretty low. In a way, this is why digital news is so polluted. Those who start and write for these junk news and junk science sites are usually the same know-nothings that rail against professional journalism (derisively calling it “fake news” or the “mainstream media”) and also against medicine. And don’t get me started on the anti-scientific bozos who drink “raw water,” or where Louis Pasteur meets Charles Darwin.
Social media has only amplified and expanded the reach of these junk dealers. Manjoo concludes, “you don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly from Twitter and Facebook.” That is because, as we have seen, social media treats all “news” the same, and that has helped spark the disinformation that we’ve seen over the last twenty years. But that is not to say that the news a print journalist reports can’t be shared responsibly online.
And vice-versa: print is not immune to disinformation. As early as the nineteenth century, we had all kinds of salacious news, hoaxes, and outright frauds printed in newspapers. It took newspaper publishers a lot of soul searching and the field of journalism to establish professional training programs to make print the gold-standard of news and information.