Yesterday I good and finally started to lose it over the constant torrent of news pouring outward from this dumpster fire of an administration. My favorite economist blogger said something to the effect of it being merely a weird day, not a very weird day. He’s a level-headed guy, that one. Others have suggested the news projectile vomiting outward from the Bannon-House is a calculated strategy designed to confuse, disorient, and exhaust the opposition. If that’s true, it’s working.
It’s not just me who is disoriented. I think we all are, us liberals. We haven’t seen anything like this, so it’s unclear how we should react, or what we should focus on, or how to deal with our own mental health in the process. By the end of the day yesterday, as I injected my third glass of wine, I wondered: were we 10 days in to this administration? Or was it 12? Obviously I couldn’t go on like this. We can’t go on like this.
I remembered my time as a journalist covering local politics for the Albuquerque Journal. They are fond memories, low pay notwithstanding. I was a reporter during an odd time: the Internet was working its revenue-destroying magic, but the 24-hour news and Internet outrage cycle hadn’t truly taken hold. I got the job in 2004, about 6 month before the first YouTube was uploaded, and I left in 2006, just after Twitter launched. Back then we still had the luxury of a whole day in order to decide what was news and what wasn’t.
I think a lot of people don’t recognize just how truly profound the move from print to Internet was. Print is finite. There were a set number of pages in the newspaper every day, and it didn’t matter if the Pope had died, or if the biggest news that day was a Planning Commission meeting – in to those pages the news of the day needed to fit. In some extreme cases, we could add a spread, if we gave the print folks enough notice.
Throughout the day we made judgement calls about what would be in tomorrow’s paper and what wouldn’t. We had from the time we showed up at work until our deadline at 10:30pm to decide, with my bosses, the editors, making the final calls. It was a whole, spacious day in which to apply our professional judgement and training as to what we felt our readers most needed to see, and what could wait, or what didn’t make the cut at all.
On the Internet, however, space is infinite, and in the 24 hour news cycle there is no time for editorial judgement. News breaks and gets old by the minute. You can browse Facebook all day long and find an infinite supply of stories to occupy every spare moment. We have traded judgement about what’s important for a computer algorithm that decides what it thinks we’ll like. That is a profound shift. Some would say good, I’d rather have news tailored to me than decided by some faceless newspaper editor. But I say bad. Very, very bad.
I say we have lost something precious just when we need it the most: editorial judgement. If it is true that Steve Bannon is purposefully feeding us with so much news we won’t be able to tell what’s truly consequential and what’s a distraction, than the only antidote is to recapture some of that discernment. As I was browsing the Inter-webs last night I found myself wishing the torrent would end, that the infinite would be finite, and most of all that someone who does this professionally, who I trusted, would just tell me what the most important thing was to read that day and save me this impossible task of sorting the signal from the noise. I was wishing, above all, for print.
At some point I remembered a Mother Jones article from last year, This Is What’s Missing from Journalism Right Now. It’s among the most sober pieces you’ll read on the true cost of investigative journalism, which cannot at all be supported by ad revenue alone. For example, their blockbuster investigation last year into the private prison system cost approximately $350,000 in staff time to report. More than a million people read it, and it was shared tens of thousands of times on social media. Most other mainstream news sources did stories on it. Many credit the piece with shifting the conversation enough to lead the Obama Justice Department to announce it would no longer contract with private prisons. Boom.
How much did that story bring in in ad revenue? $5,000.
If you want to know how Mojo, a nonprofit, pays for stories like that, since ad revenue clearly doesn’t cover it, go read the piece in full. It’s certainly worth the time of anyone who cares about good investigative reporting, and – spoiler alert – one way is through subscriptions. So, by all means subscribe to some print journalism that you trust, because journalism is important, and good journalism is expensive.
But to that I would add another reason: do it for your own sanity. Do it because you recognize that you alone cannot every day for the next four years understand how to sort bombast from substance in the age of Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle, and the Bannon-Brietbart-Alternative-Facts-Complex. Last night I decided I was done browsing news sites. I wanted some print, I wanted it delivered, and I would turn over this important task of focusing on the important things to those who are paid to do it for a living, and who are good at it. I have voluntarily confined the boundaries of my news consumption to that content over which expert, human editorial judgement is being exercised. In the end, it was pretty cheap, and I’ll have my reading cut out for me.
- 1 year of the Sunday Washington Post, because everyone should subscribe to their local newspaper and pay attention to what’s going on in their own community. $40/year.
- 1 year of Mother Jones, so they can keep doing the heavy investigative stuff (6 issues). $12/year.
- 1 year of The Atlantic, so I can get the broad-based, big picture analysis, and because they have assembled the best collection of different perspectives anywhere. (10 issues). $24.50/year.
- 1 year of The Economist, not only one of the most astute outside observers of American politics, but because I care about the rest of the world as well (weekly). $152/year.
Total: $228.50/year, or roughly $19/month.
Think about that for a moment. I subscribed to three of the best magazines in the world and the Sunday Washington Post for a mere $19/month, which I am actually splitting with my partner. If this were just about supporting good journalism, I would say that is a bounteous haul of good journalism for practically nothing. However, since this is also about maintaining one’s sanity in the age of Trump, I have to say: this is an outright steal.