Tag: newspapers

Breaking News Demonstrates the Value of Newspapers

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The New York Times app was a mess when the news Russian’s invasion into Ukraine broke. All of the information was listed under their “Live” section which was a list of short “up-to-the-minute” reports, often just a single paragraph. These were listed reverse chronologically, with several of them each hour. This was breaking news, it was news unfolding as it happened.

For me, it was also mostly useless.

The trend toward “breaking news” has, it seems to me, led to a steady decline in the value and content of the news being reported. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I prefer my news to be considered, with sources confirmed, and additional analysis provided. That takes time. I don’t see the value of rushing to report news without confirmation from multiple sources, just to be the first to get it out there. I don’t see the value of a paragraph of reporting where the situation is changing rapidly and anything reported might be meaningless an hour later. What I find valuable is to sit down with a complete news article, one that refers to multiple sources to the facts that it reports, one that provides analysis that has been considered. These things take time.

Not even a lot of time, really. Journalists have been very good at providing in-depth coverage of some breaking event even with a day to do so. This is a value that printed newspapers provide that I think is overlooked. People point to the death of newspapers because the Internet and online news can be had much faster. But at what cost? A printed daily paper enforces a deadline that allows for a much more reasonable degree in the accuracy of reporting than breaking news on an app. A front-page, 6-column above-the-fold article on the Russian invasion into Urkaine is much more valuable to me than an unsubstantiated paragraph of breaking news the minute it happens.

I’m not saying that all such breaking news is unsubstantiated, but in the chaos of war, it seems that the easiest thing to do is to post observations and opinions in the heat of the moment without the time needed to chase down leads and analyze the information coming in. It is that time–enforced by the daily rhythm of newspapers–that gives the printed papers an advantage over breaking news online.

What good is “breaking news” if reporters have to trade accuracy for speed?

Of course, this could be done in an online format if the conditions supported a daily rhythm the way print media does, but online has come to be a synonym for now. When we accept breaking news, we run the risk of making that same trade-off: accuracy for speed. We may get some information now, but how good is the information we are getting? Some will be good, and some won’t be? How do we, the consumers of news, tell the difference?

Reporting in which leads have time to be tracked down, sources confirmed by other sources, analysis and context provided to the reporting seems much more valuable. What I can’t understand is why breaking news is accepted as readily as it is. I learned this lesson well after 9/11. Social media didn’t exist and online news was nothing like it is today. The big TV news outlets were the surrogates for what breaking news online is today. There was a lot of confusion and misinformation on TV. I remember going a nearby 7-Eleven each morning after the attacks and buying a copy of every newspaper they had: L.A. Times (because I lived in L.A.), New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, U.S.A. Today. I spent my days pouring over all of the articles and op-eds in these papers, pieces which has at least a night for thought and refinement. The news of the attacks looked different from the pages of those papers than it did from the “breaking news” the television networks showed all day long.

Even as I wrote this, on the third day after the invasion, it is difficult to find an in-depth article on the New York Times app. Everything is “breaking news.” This also seems to be the case with the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal seems to have a led in-depth article on their app, but immediately after are the “latest updates.”

What, I wonder, is the value of breaking news? Why does it need to be presented as quickly (and incompletely) as it is? it seems cynical to say that it is there for nothing more than to attract eyeballs, increase clicks, and therefore, ad revenue. But I have to wonder.

In the meantime, it is not too difficult for me to pick up a few printed newspapers at the local 7-Eleven on my morning walk, and make my way through the more in-depth articles that span their frontpages. I don’t feel disjointed or out-of-the-loop by getting my news twelve hours after the “breaking” events. Indeed, I feel more informed about them than I might be if I followed nothing but the breaking news.

Written on February 26, 2022.

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“Do You Read All These Newspapers?”

“Do you read all these newspapers?” the clerk at the 7-Eleven asked me this past Sunday. I stop in at the 7-Eleven daily for the Washington Post, and on Sundays, both the Post and the New York Times.

“Not every word,” I said, “but a lot of it.”

I could have the papers delivered, but when I’ve done that they tend to accumulate unread. Going for the paper each morning is a chore, and helps to assure that I’ll read the paper that day.

I could read the papers on my phone. I have subscriptions to the Post, New York Times, and L.A. Times digital editions. But reading the paper in the morning is one of the few times in the day when I am not looking at a screen. I like starting the day off-screen, so-to-speak.

I was reminded of the clerk’s remark while skimming an old Andy Rooney piece this morning. Often, I write these posts a day or two ahead of when they appear. Sometimes, like today, it is the same day. And when the well feels dry, I’ll turn to Andy Rooney, or E. B. White for inspiration. This morning I flipped to an old Andy Rooney column on “Electronic Journalism.” In it, Rooney was talking about newspaper reporters adapting to writing on terminals instead of a sheet of yellow copy paper. He then had this to day, which I had already underlined in my copy of the book:

If the time comes when the newspaper itself is not a paper at all but an image that can be called up on the screen of a computer in a person’s home, a lot of what [newspaper reporters] love about the business will be gone.

Is there a difference between a print newspaper and a digital version? I’ve given this much thought. On the one hand, each is reporting the same stories using the same words written by the same reporters. It is the medium that differs. Does that matter? I’d say it does for several reasons:

  1. The layout of a page of news in a newspaper contains information that isn’t necessarily conveyed equally well by the listing format that many digital news apps use. (It is, in some of these apps, possible to get a “page view” which helps some.)
  2. The content itself may differ slightly. Corrections and additions are made to the electronic version much more quickly than the digital version.

A feature of digital news is its speed. Stories can be communicated as they unfold. “Breaking news” used to be the exception. Today it is the rule. I’m not a fan of breaking news. Too often there just isn’t enough good information, too much speculation, and too much hype around stories when they unfold in real time. I much prefer the newspaper in these cases. I may not know all of the details at the time the event breaks, but the next morning, I’m likely to be much better informed by an newspaper article the reporter of which has had time to confirm their facts, chase down leads, talk to key people. The likelihood of rumor and speculation goes down considerably.

In some ways, reading the paper in the morning keeps me from feeling the need to check the news on my phone every 5 minutes throughout the day. In fact, I generally don’t feel I need to check the news at all until after dinner. Then, I’ll browse the headlines to get a preview of what I’ll be reading about tomorrow.

Of course, if evening editions of newspapers still existed, I wouldn’t even have to do that.

Morning Routines

After six months in the new house, I have finally settled into my morning routines. I use the plural because my routines vary by day of the week. I know this is something of an oxymoron. Routines are supposed to be consistent, and yet this is the world I live in and I have learned to adapt.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday share the same morning routine. Tuesdays and Thursdays share a different routine. Tuesdays have on added element missing from all other days. The reason for the variation is that Kelly takes the kids to school and picks them up from school on Mondays, Wednesday, and every other Friday. I take Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the Fridays in-between.

Regardless of the weekday, I am usually up by 6 am. I spend the next 40 (Tuesdays, Thursdays, every other Friday) minutes to sixty minutes (Mondays, Wednesdays, etc.) reading the news. I read three papers. I start with the New York Times because it has the best obituaries and the obituaries is where I begin my day. It sounds gloomy, but I enjoy the mini-biographies, and often find the full lives described within them an inspiring way to start the day. Occasionally, I’m caught off-guard by who appears there.

I also read the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. I skim the headlines, and usually tackle features and profiles, then the columns. I look for guest editorials. I sometimes read the letters to the editor to see what people are complaining about. I do this in all three papers, and after an hour or so, I generally feel like I have a good sense of what is going on in the world.

If it’s my day, I get the kids up, make them breakfast, and get them ready for school. We are out the door at 7:30 am, and I’m back home 10 minutes later. Then I go for my morning walk. Our house backs up to a park, and I walk two miles each morning. I walk regardless of heat or cold. Drizzle and light snow won’t stop me. Only pouring rain keeps me indoors. I listen to whatever audiobook I happen to be reading while I walk.

Back home I make myself breakfast, usually scrambled eggs, or oatmeal. I read a magazine article while I eat breakfast. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and I’ve found that the only way I can reasonably keep up is to read one feature article a day. I cross the article off in the table of contents when I finish reading it so I know what I’ve read. When all of the features of a given magazine are crossed off, it goes in the recycling bin.

With breakfast finished, I turn to my work computer, sign in, and begin my workday. I mostly work from home these days and so I can skip the commute, which saves an enormous amount of time.

What got me thinking about my morning routines was the exception to the rule. Tuesday mornings are different than all other mornings. There is one added feature to my Tuesday mornings. When I wake up, I don’t check the obits first thing. Instead, I go to Audible and see what the new releases for the week are. I can spend 30 minutes sifting through the hundreds of audiobooks released to see if there are any gems that need to be added to my wishlist.

I don’t know how it was decided that Tuesdays would be the day to release new books. It seems like a strange day to do it. Maybe the distributors needed Monday to deliver the books to bookstores. With so many books sold online and in digital formats these days, it seems like a new book could be released any day of the week. But I shouldn’t complain. Publishers and distributors have their routines, just like I do, and who am I to disturb them.

Incidentally, I am usually less well-informed about the world on Tuesday mornings because I have to rush through the news after spending so much time seeing what new books have been released. But I still still read the obits.

And if you are curious, this morning’s article was “Escape from a Black Hole” by Steven B. Giddings in the December 2019 issue of Scientific American.

Do Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read Newspapers?

Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me. 

He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.) 

Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper. 

The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts. 

  1. Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high. 
  2. At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity. 
  3. Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear. 
  4. Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one. 
  5. Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page. 

There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post

Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen. 

I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board. 

I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that.