Confessions of an ex-news junkie

News stand on a Greek street

Once upon a time if I wasn’t plugged into the grid, I wasn’t really switched on myself. But then the grid became bigger, I started drawing too much information, and the fuses blew…

It’s true, once upon a time I truly was addicted to news. If I had the TV on in the background it was usually tuned to a 24 hours news channel, I’d read the Gruaniad cover to cover most days, and at 22.30 in the week switch on Newsnight for analysis of the day’s events after watching the 10.

Hell, once I even caught myself recording the news because there was something I really wanted to watch on the other side.

Then of course another layer was added on top of all that by social media: Twitter’s insistent and speedy jungle drums and Facebook’s multiple interactions meant that stories could spread with ludicrous speed if you were connected to the grid in the right spots. And there was always a thrill when something broke, the knowledge that you passed the story on downstream first (though being a good journalist I usually checked with a reliable online source first, and sometimes that minutes long wait while waiting for the BBC or Reuters or AP to confirm something was tortuous).

So, what changed? A few things, but basically I realised I was becoming simply reactive and increasingly simple as a result; one of BF Skinner’s famous pigeons pressing the refresh button on an increasingly shortened fuse. What’s worse is that in doing that I was only mirroring the operation of the news organisations themselves.

Add in the increasing volume of the information stream that being active on social media brought to the table, and all the little endorphin rushes of the likes and shares and comments there as we all become our own mini news organisations pumping memes and little OpEds round the planet, and I decided I really had to stop.

Now, I can’t stop entirely. As a journalist part of my job is to monitor certain information sources and, indeed, at times contribute to the growing exabytes of information. But I can corral them and wrestle them into a compartmentalised work time. It became a task of prioritising and sorting out necessary information.

The newspaper I’d given up long ago as lifestyle dictats seemed to have assumed the same weight as actual news. Tick. I gave up personal Twitter use. Tick. I changed my homepage on Safari from news.bbc.co.uk to Netweather (being a weather geek, I consider meteorological info to be very necessary indeed), I stopped watching the 10 o’-Clock News, I certainly stopped watching Question Time, I curtailed my Facebook use, I organised my blog feed into the two or three I felt I had to read regularly for work, and the rest that I could read when I wanted to. I left the iPad on charge and picked up a book. Tick, tick, tick, tick…

Tock.

I can’t do it completely. Going completely information free is unrealistic, especially given what I do for a living, but I can shape and channel it and decide what bits I need and what bits I don’t. I can embrace the slow in my personal life while still being incredibly reactive and plugged in in my work one.

‘Slow’ is a key word here. This isn’t some form of Neo Luddism and the desire for wilful ignorance, it’s about stepping back, pruning down, and considering. I may not have known of the Paris attacks till Saturday morning, but what did I lose in that 12 hour blackout?

One of the best things I did was subscribe to a news magazine called Delayed Gratification, whose proud motto etched on the spine is ‘Last to breaking news’. It takes three months of news events, spends three months analysing them, then publishes the mag (which, incidentally, is also beautifully designed and beautifully written). It’s worth quoting their manifesto, for want of a better word, here.

“Slow journalism matters. Why? Because today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in realtime but not what it means. It gives up the beginning of their stories but rarely their end. It promotes knee jerk reactions and cut and paste journalism over context and perspective. It lends significant to Twitter storms, PR-driven stories, and synthetic outrage.

It does not nourish, it does not inspire. It is not enough.”

To my mind, they have a very good point.

The latest issue, which arrived over Easter, has an article on the Parisian terror attack, couching it in the context of a month and a half of other atrocities, ranging from Ankara on 10 October to San Bernardino on 2 December. The news might be slow, but the analysis of it is anything but. In the long run I not only feel better informed, but I also don’t feel like a pigeon pecking away at a keyboard waiting for a quick info seed nugget any more.

My name is Andy Stout. And I’m a news junkie… but I’m now in remission.

Photo credit: Spyros Papaspyropoulos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND