If We Don’t Need Newspapers, Do We Need the Network Nightly News?

To stay informed I watch NBC Nightly News, catch a documentary now and then, read several magazine articles each week, and surf the web daily.  This is fairly time consuming, but I like to keep up on what’s going down.  Some of my friends use other sources, like radio, newspapers and podcasts, which I don’t.  None of us want to be considered ignorant, ill-informed or out-of-the-loop.  With so many news sources, what’s the best method to track reality, and become well informed citizens?

nightly_news

For months I’ve been hearing reports on NBC Nightly News about the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  NBC gave me a few minutes here and there.  The other night PBS Frontline presented “Ebola Outbreak” that in 27 minutes was many times more informative than anything NBC had presented all summer.  Then I read this piece in Vanity Fair, “Hell in the Hot Zone” that  concisely summed up the history of the recent outbreak in about 15 minutes of reading.  NBC spent most of its Ebola reporting time in the last few weeks on the plight of American doctors who had been infected with Ebola, which actually told me little about Ebola and the outbreak.

In terms of massive impact on my brain, the PBS Frontline piece made the deepest emotional impression, and probably a lasting impression.  However, the Vanity Fair piece was more informative and educational.  Why were these two sources better than the NBC Nightly News?

The network  nightly news – ABC, CBS, NBC – has always been a convenient way to stay inform in thirty minutes.  If you remove the commercials, that’s really 20 minutes of content.  Most stories are just sound bites, and often viewers spend more time looking at the reporters than we do at film clips.  If you watch the film clip I linked above, and read the article link, you’ll notice no commercials or reporters.  By far, the Vanity Fair piece is the most information dense of each kind of reporting, but the documentary, with its shocking video is more impactful.  We tend to be addicted to nightly news because we love to see things happening.  The real appeal of TV news are the visuals.  These shows are good for rubbernecking at reality.  It’s fun, but is it educational?

In the course of a month I might see 300 news stories by watching the nightly news, and I might remember some of them to talk about with friends in the next twenty-four hours.  After a day I tend to forget what I’ve seen.  Generally, I only remember stuff long term when I’ve seen a longer news story, for example, like something on 60 Minutes or Frontline.  When is news empty calories, and when is news something that’s mentally nutritious and healthy?  I believe the real goal of staying informed is to become better educated about the world at large.  A diet of mesmerizing videos and sound bites might be informative but not educational.  News needs to be more than talking heads and film clips.  As an older person I’ve stuck with television news, but I think younger people have already moved on.

I’m not advocating giving up watching network news shows, or even predicting their extinction.  What I’m asking is if there’s a more efficient ways to stay informed?  I’m also asking why those ways might be more effective and educational.  One theory I have is network news stories are too short.  That we don’t get enough data about any one subject to make it memorable.  I’m wondering if we read or watch more focused and longer pieces if we’re actually learn and remember more?

I think my habit of watching television news, and a similar habit of grazing the web for news, is wasting my time.  By exploring the same news through different news sources I’m discovering a difference in how I learn and remember.

longform

Reading long essays versus short news items is showing me something important.  There is a movement called long form journalism.  Does spending twenty minutes reading one essay make you more informed than spending the same time on 10-20 smaller pieces?  I read Zite and News360 every day, and most links take me to very short news items.  Like watching the network news, I forget 99.9% of everything I read by the next day or two.  I don’t think I’ll be able to recall the exact facts from the Vanity Fair piece on Ebola, but I think I’ll know a year from now how it started, spread, and is usually contained. (It might not this time.)

There are several web sites devoted to promoting long form journalism.  These curated sites link to the best long form essays on the web and I’m wondering if they might be a replacement for the network news show.  On the other hand, there are many who attack the concept.  I think you’ll have to create your own tests to see which kind of news is the most valuable to you.  Personally, my tests favor long form.  I believe we’re addicted to short news stories because it takes less work and we’re lazy.  Read an annual volume of Best American Essays or Best American Science and Nature Writing and tell me you don’t feel more enlightened than watching a whole year of television news.

It’s interesting that long form reading seems to have coincided with the development of the tablet computer.  Fans like to create their own customize magazines with Twitter and RSS feeds.  Mobile devices allow users to read anywhere, and more comfortably, and that might explain why more people are willing to read longer essays. 

Some people will claim today’s citizens don’t have the attention span for longer articles, or that our fast pace world demands quick reading, or that the busy productive person needs to get to the facts fast.  But I’m asking:  Is quickly gobbled down data worth much?  I’m considering switching from reading Zite and News360 and just browsing several of the long form curated sites.  Will reading longer articles actually tell me about everything that was in the shorter pieces?

I wished that Google would tell us how many words are in the articles they cite in a search result.  I waste a lot of time going to articles that have little value, and all too often the pages seem full of click-bait traps.  But will I miss all the glitz, gossip and sexiness of news grazing?  Reading only long articles ignores all the filler.  Maybe filler has it’s own value, and I’ll learn that too? 

Long Form Curated Sites:

Essays about Long Form Content:

JWH – 9/12/14

4 thoughts on “If We Don’t Need Newspapers, Do We Need the Network Nightly News?”

  1. Good post, Jim. Thanks. I watch CNN a lot and really don’t get that much news – not new news, anyway.

    I think of NBC etc. as being “headline news” – the slots are blurbs and an overview of several – like a little buffet of what happened today. If I want more info I go elsewhere – PBS, a newspaper article, a magazine article, a book.

    For Ebola I’d probably check PBS because it’s a fairly new story but has lots of little tangents – the NY Times is good sometimes but it’s been shortening a lot of pieces now for quite a while.

    For something like the fact that the shooters of Malala were arrested today I’d see that in some headline news source (Google News) and then go to the NY Times or PBS and then for the background, I’d head to the Vanity Fair article, and then to her book. Those latter sources won’t give me any info on today’s arrests though. The most will likely be in the newspapers and I’ll have to follow that story for a few days.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2013/04/malala-yousafzai-pakistan-profile

    For ebola I’d hear about it on CNN, check Google News, the NY Times. Then I’d Google search for “Ebola in-depth” and come up with Al-Jazeera – Vanity Fair? Then there’s a book about the origins but it’s not news at all.

    I can not possibly read in-depth or long-journalism articles about everything on the news – Chicago and school violence? ISIS and Islam? Ian Paisley? Hilary Clinton? I have to look through (or watch) the headlines and pick a few to get more info about and then pick one to go in-depth. Gone are the days when the Minneapolis Tribune was delivered and we read nice-sized news articles where someone had done some work putting it together.

    And btw, TV network news started as a 15 minute slot back in the 1950s, it was popular during the 1970s that they went for an hour – that didn’t work – folks didn’t want to watch that much. So they switched and documentaries were popular for awhile – magazine format – Dateline, 60 Minutes, etc. Now? Hmmmm…. sometimes I feel like it’s all headlines about celebrities, sex, violence and pet stories. Who said that was news?

    Who says what news is? NBC? (We were asked that in my old journalism classes when the rising crime rate was the big news story all the time.) Is crime news? Is political scandal news? You said something about making you an “informed citizen,” Assuming that’s a worthy goal – (it is, but I’m not sure what defines “informed”) – what do you want to informed about?

    Personally (and this was too long about 7 paragraphs ago), I’m regularly interested in foreign affairs, the Supreme Court decisions, a few of my home town issues – like water. I try to keep up with that while kinda sorta staying abreast of the NY Times level of reporting on the others stuff. I use Google News as my basic headline reporter and go from there – to a book if necessary. I just can’t, and don’t want to, keep up with everything!

  2. I pulled the plug on cable TV three years ago, intending to watch over-the-air digital. That didn’t last long. I only catch a bit of video on my iPad.

    Commercial TV news is constrained by the format and its purpose. It’s only a few minutes long and the news is read out loud. I.e., not much time and a very slow delivery method. From the networks’ point of view, the purpose of the nightly news is to turn a profit.

    I cancelled home delivery of my ever-shrinking local newspaper about the same time. Now, it’s just another feed in my RSS reader.

    Despite cancelling the paper and pulling the cable plug, I’m sure my consumption of actual news has increased. I’m able to be more selective and also able to “drill down more readily, as well as locating new sources.

    Whether or not news-on-the-net can support itself remains an unresolved issue. Most people seem to think paying a bit of attention to “the news” is something of an unpleasant civil obligation, at best, so the smallest dose they can get away with, the better.

    1. I wonder how much civic responsibility we have to stay informed? Or what percentage of well-informed people do we need to keep the society going. One article I read yesterday in a Canadian magazine described the dumbing down of America. At what point does a civilization collapse when a its population ignores reality? The other night on NOVA they talked about vaccines and said when less than 95% of the population fails to get vaccinated diseases show back up. What’s the percentage of well-informed people do we need to keep the country going? I think we’ve fallen below that cut-off point already.

  3. Excellent post and something to think about trying. Thanks for the links as I wasn’t sure how to get started. Some great turns of phrase in here. Rubbernecking at reality!

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