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?
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.
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:
- Byliner – Pay site
- The Electric Typewriter
- The Feature
- BuzzReads – Big Stories
- The Browser
- Arts & Letters Daily (not devoted to long form, but lots of long articles)
- The Atavist – Pay site
- Travel Reads – at Longform
Essays about Long Form Content:
- What is Long-Form Content and Why Does It Work?
- Why Long Form Content Marketing Works, and Why It Doesn’t – Forbes
- Against ‘Long-Form’ Journalism – The Atlantic
- The Remarkable Decline in the Wall Street Journal’s Long Form Journalism – The Atlantic
- The long-form resurrection: Will snappy websites kill off lengthy magazine reads? – The Independent
- Website Longform Starts To Find Its Footing Online – NPR
- The Best of Curation – How to get longform on your mobile device
JWH – 9/12/14