Where has all the news gone? (a.k.a WaPo is now CraPo), Part 1

Part 1 – Introduction and “News (sources) You Can Use”

I grew up in a very political, very news-oriented household. Unusually so, even for the well-educated and urbane suburbs of Washington, D.C. , and probably so for a lot of other places as well. My father would read at least a couple of papers a day, starting off with the Washington Post each morning. My mother read the paper and magazines, including Newsweek, and pretty much whatever else she could find. Myself, I started out reading the comics (one of my earliest memories), and even before my teenage years, I’d branched out to other sections of the paper. For a year or two, starting at about the age of 13, I even became obsessed with the Business section and tracking commodity and stock prices and how different stories would impact those values. We also watched the early local evening news, the national news (CBS of course) and my parents would stay up and watch the late local evening news.

It wasn’t until quite a bit later in life that I noticed that this was indeed unusual. However, I continued on thinking of TV and newspapers (and the media in general) as having some redeeming value – they served a valuable public good. If you were interested in a topic or issue, some reporter somewhere was covering it and if it was a big story, other reporters and papers would follow. And for most of my life, I would swear that’s how it actually worked during my formative years (’70s and ’80s). Yes, I know journalism wasn’t perfect, but I grew up in a town with a paper that had a national reputation; a paper that not only broke the story on Watergate, but broke national and local news on a seemingly regular basis. It was the paper of record when it came to Washington and the Federal government.

So why in the last six months have I not only given up only reading the newspaper (WaPo subscription canceled and barely even noticed, other than recycling bin is a helluva lot lighter) but for the most part, I’ve stopped even reading the Washington Post website? Why does leafing through Newsweek, which my parents still dutifully get, actually seem to make me feel ill? And why, other than for primary or election day coverage and other major events, do I rarely watch a single news program or channel anymore?

Well, because it stopped being news. I stopped my “habit” and yet I don’t consider myself any less informed about the facts related to current events. Before I go into anymore detail on why I find most news sources to be complete crap, I’ll describe how I do get my news now. First thing to know is that it takes some hunting around and I think the “perfect” solution is still in flux, but this is what works so far for current events:

  1. NPR – both my local radio station (88.5 WAMU) and the NPR website, which has some pretty well written stories published on the site (not just copies of audio!)
  2. My personalized iGoogle page, where I have the top headlines from the following RSS feeds: Google News “Top Stories“; Ars Technica, NY Times Home Page, Techdirt, Wired Top Stories, and yes, I still pull in the headlines from the Washington Post, but I haven’t clicked on one of those links in months.
  3. Twitter – this one was a bit of a surprise to me, but thanks to a global group of folks that I follow, I’ve heard about earthquakes thousands and thousands of miles away, and received countless tidbits of analysis and news items that I literally would not have seen otherwise. This works especially well if you follow folks that you don’t necessarily agree with, otherwise it’s just a circle jerk of the same thinks you already think or know . . . but that’s a subject for another post. (As I was writing this a 7.4 quake struck Indonesia – I found out about it on Twitter about ten minutes after it struck. First hit on Google news search wasn’t until 24 minutes.) For sites like Huffington Post, I don’t even interact with their websites — just wait to see what’s making its way around the twittersphere.
  4. Google News/Newsmap – Most folks reading this post are probably familiar with the Google News Aggregator, and it is indeed a great service, but the interface is poor – What stories are important? What stories do other people think are important? What’s new? What’s old? It’s all a bit of a hash. Which is why after running across it more than 5 years ago, I use this cool little app called newsmap, which I think is one of the most underrated items on the Internet net. Why? Because you can see the news as you never have before. Here’s the page that explains what it’s all about. Try it out for yourself and you’ll see.
  5. Various other social networking/social bookmarking sites: Slashdot, Digg, delicious, Reddit, etc. (every blue moon or so, I’ll actually find a useful news-related link on Facebook. Guess they somehow let that get by their “relevance filters.”)  I used to use these sites a lot more, but they all seem a little clunky now.[TANGENTIAL RANT: Hell, Twitter wins over them all if for no reason than there isn’t always some asshat posting “First!” and then the subsequent argument/discussion about posting “First” and the type of people who feel the need to post that, and then the subsequent discussion/argument about people who feel the need to comment on people posting “First”. Usually only ended by a couple dozen postings on the grammar/spelling failings of various posters or the invoking of Godwin’s law whenever someone compares someone else to Hitler. So glad to see that Web 2.0/3.0/*insert irrational number here* has risen so far above the behavior seen on every BBS, USENET group and mailing-list serve ever seen. END OF RANT]

What do all these sources have that the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the news on television doesn’t? Well, in the case of NPR it’s the straightforward nature of the reporting. Now those on the right will always claim there is a liberal bias on public radio, because you know they’re*whisper* publicly funded. However in my experience, they evidence no more liberal bias than reality does (as Mr. Colbert noted). From All Things Considered to Marketplace, I find out more information and quality analysis from public radio than from almost any other single source. Also, when opinion is offered, it is clearly labeled as such.

In the case of my personal news aggregation in iGoogle – it’s the flexibility and diversity I enjoy. With so many feeds, I get the information I’m interested in, as well as what I should be interested in.

With Twitter, as I mentioned, the diversity of views is wonderful and as it turns out, interesting people read interesting things and write interesting things about them. So if you follow interesting people (which I do!) than the rest takes care of itself.

With newsmap, I like it because it puts the news, and what people think is important, into perspective. On a big news day, whatever the story is will dominate the screen with the brightest colors. On a slow news day, it’s fascinating to see what pops up out of the primordial news ooze, seeking to gain our attention. It usually has something to do with sex, money or death it seems. Whenever we’re not given something specific to worry about, we do seem to enjoy finding new and uninteresting ways to focus on the first two and pretend we’re not afraid of the third while spending all of our money to avoid it.

As for the other sites listed, they used to be useful, and I’ll still occasionally find something worthwhile to read, but generally it’s the most slanted, biased pieces that get the most attention on those sites. (I’ll leave it to someone else to write the definitive piece talking about websites with “voting” mirroring the ideological extremism you see on the increase in elections – I’ll just offer the observation that everyone who does well on those sites generally plays to an ideological base, and those wishing to get votes consciously or subconsciously play to that awareness.)

Now that I’ve explained what I like specifically in my news sources, in Part 2 coming next week, I’ll explain what I find so horrible and soul-crushing about mainstream news sources. Here’s a hint: modern journalists (by and large) suck at their jobs, or work for organizations that no longer allow them to be good at it.

Do you have a favorite news source (mainstream or otherwise)? Would love to hear about it in the comments and why you like it!

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