In our house, it’s become hard to understand the news. Not the news itself, but “the news” itself.
Growing up, “news,” however broad, was still characterized by a kind of specificity. It kept its own hours on TV. In the houses that had cable, it had its own channels. It arrived organized into a fold of papers on the doorstep every morning. News was a thing you participated in at key points in your day, a kind of calisthenics of awareness: an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening.
I remember when my father screwed a Spacesaver television under the cabinet in the kitchen shortly after the Gulf War tore open. And because I was 14, I remember the night-vision footage of the bombings on the tiny screen — the resolution as bad as the Nintendo games we’d stopped playing, the repetition flattening the reality into a loop. It also reminded my parents that I was almost 18. That’s why it was always on.
News became a drug in our house for the duration of that war, a little panic box we’d leave running all evening to unsettle us with gruesome details as framed by a primordial pool of cable pundits. The only worst-case scenario they left out was that even when the war was over, “the news” would only get worse.
Fast-forward a quarter century and our news supply has grown even more insidious, “viral” in the sense that it can’t be contained. It bubbles through our lockscreen, buzzes at our wrists, blares from every TV in every airport terminal and barber shop. It overwhelms social media, fuels anger, and in its ubiquity, becomes all the more easy to distort and manipulate — to the point where eight weeks ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg altered the News Feed specifically to deliver less news.
But even this attempt at a freedom-from-information act can’t change a climate that we’ve been cultivating for decades. News organizations and begrudging “media companies” like Facebook can tweak their formulas to soften the deluge, but the burden of improving our news experience falls upon us. (Yes, I certainly mean this-side-of-the-paper “us,” but also that-side-of-the-paper “us.”) So how do we do it?
As Farhad Manjoo quips in a recent piece for The New York Times reviewing the two months he spent limiting his news intake entirely to home subscriptions for three daily print newspapers, “Listening to a Times writer extol the virtues of print is like taking breakfast suggestions from Count Chocula.” So sprinkle the same grains of salt atop my suggestions, one of them being Manjoo’s technique.
In addition to feeling like less of an anxiety addict, Manjoo also found himself “embarrassed by how much free time I have.” “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,” he writes, “always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.”
Depending on how you look at it, relying on a source that takes a day to pull itself together can leave you feeling a little behind or way ahead. And while this hands-on (or hands-off) approach to news consumption (complete with tea and toast) has its anachronistic charms, the real benefit is how it restores news to a tangible form, something you can pick up and put aside. No, you still can’t control it, but it has even less chance of controlling you.
Manjoo’s is more of a life-hack than a solution to the greater problem of how to improve a news culture characterized by saturation and sensationalism, driven by clicks and corporate interests, and suffering from understandable mistrust from the public it purports to serve.
But one promising, albeit far more conceptual solution to each of these woes may be in the offing at Civil, a newly launched publishing distribution platform (or “marketplace”) for journalism based upon (deep breath) blockchain technology and crypto-economics. Wait! Keep reading!
The idea is more than just “Bitcoin but for news.” As explained by Civil CEO Matthew Iles, the mission is to free journalism entirely from an increasingly unsustainable funding model that relies on failing ad revenues by eliminating the advertising strata altogether. Civil envisions a network of virtual “newsrooms” that are entirely supported by readers through a transparent exchange that allows publishers to self-govern and ensures that journalistic content is protected and permanent. Among the first publications hosted within Civil is “Hmm Daily,” a commentary site helmed by resurgent ex-Gawker editor Tom Scocca.
So there you have it: Unbreaking the news might be a matter of overhauling the paradigm, or just sticking to the fishwrap. But it really doesn’t matter where you fall between these two extremes. Simply coming to the news with a bit more consciousness can help our experience of it — imagine the difference between sipping water and breathing air. We might not be able to make good news, but we can at least make it better.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.