Staying Informed Amid the Noise

Published on February 3, 2020

Warren Buffett has been a newshound all his life. He is known to read five newspapers a day including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Financial Times, and the Omaha World-Herald. His affinity for handling newsprint started early in life when, at age 13, he took on a job as a newspaper carrier in Washington D.C.1 Those of us who delivered newspapers as teenagers can relate to the rhythmical pattern of the news business represented by the daily package of information that we would accept in bulk and prepare for delivery to our customers. We were small cogs in the massive enterprise of disseminating information and, in our modest way, did our part to keep the population informed while learning invaluable lessons about work ethic and business in the process.

The twentieth century model of news dissemination and consumption was forever altered when the internet went mainstream in the mid 1990s. From its origins in government and academia, the internet had already been revolutionizing communications in narrow contexts for a couple of decades but ordinary individuals still consumed information either in print, by watching television, or by listening to the radio. Each of those twentieth century modes of communication were characterized by their mostly one-way nature in which sources claiming authority disseminated information to the masses. In addition, from the perspective of the individual, consuming the news had a defined end-point. When you reached the end of the newspaper, you were done reading the news of the day. When Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather signed off for the evening, you were done listening to the news of the day. Once you were done with the news, you went on with the rest of your day.

Of course, print newspapers and television broadcasts have continued to coexist with the internet, but they are increasingly anachronisms at a time when news delivery has shifted in at least four important ways.

  • News delivery resembles a water faucet that is never turned off. In the twenty-first century, there is no start or end point to the delivery of information. It never ceases to flow and there is never any sense of being “done” with the process, as one would be when reaching the last section of a print newspaper.
  • The number of sources of information has exploded. We are long past the days when people subscribed to the city’s only newspaper and tuned in to one of the three major networks. The internet has enabled anyone with an internet connection and ideas to become a publisher.
  • The news is now a two way conversation. Through social media or article comments, the response to news is instant and often critical. If you participate in this two way conversation, welcome to the world of social media dysfunction as you eagerly await responses to your comments in a never ending feedback loop.
  • The veracity of information that is published online is often questionable. The mainstream media has made much of the phenomenon of “fake news”, and there is no doubt that misinformation can spread like wildfire on social media. However, along with the liars, manipulators, and cranks distributing twaddle, the democratization of the internet has given a voice to many individuals with worthwhile things to say.

One approach to dealing with these massive changes is to opt out and simply stop consuming daily news. The advantages of doing so can be substantial in terms of freeing up time for more meaningful pursuits. Constant consumption of news militates against achieving a state of flow required to accomplish anything meaningful.

If you are an investor, almost nothing that is happening right now has a material impact on the companies you own. As a citizen, almost nothing that is happening right now has much relevance either. Other than emergency situations, simply opting out of the daily news flow can be a viable strategy. However, many of us find the allure of the news too strong to resist and, if that is the case, we need to find a system that will allow us to benefit from what is out there while not being consumed by it.

Browse, Curate, and Consume

The never-ending nature of the internet is probably the most serious impediment when it comes to consuming information. We are served up with content in an endless stream and most of us make a decision regarding whether to read or view the content right when we encounter it. This is a very unproductive and distracting way to consume information. We are making a decision at that very moment regarding whether to devote precious time to something that just popped into our consciousness. How are we supposed to know if that specific content is worth our time and that the next piece of content we encounter might not be more valuable?

The solution to many problems can be approached by breaking it down into distinct steps:

Browse. Rather than making the decision regarding whether to consume content when it is encountered, simply decide whether the content is potentially interesting to you and, if so, save it using one of the many tools that are specifically designed to do so. I have been using Instapaper for many years to queue content. Pocket and Evernote are other popular options. Certain news applications, including the Wall Street Journal’s iPad app allow for saving articles as well, but using a generic tool like Instapaper is more flexible since it works for all sources. This type of browsing can occur at any time – you are not making a commitment to read anything, only to consider reading it later.

Curate. The next step in the process, which I usually do immediately before consuming content, is to curate the accumulated list of articles that I have saved in Instapaper. I usually set aside anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes per day to consume news. The first five minutes involves curation. I go through the list of articles and often delete many of them immediately, especially if I do not recall why I saved them. Instapaper has a useful time estimate for each piece of content, so if I have a sixty minute “budget” for reading, I will continue curating content by deleting everything that will not fit into that time budget.

Consume. The remaining content is then read in any order that I choose to and when I am done with that queue of material, I am done with my consumption of news for the day and I move on to the next thing I had planned to do. This provides the same sense of completion as one would get from reaching the end of a physical newspaper. What if I encounter some other interesting article a few minutes later? I don’t read it immediately, but simply add it to my Instapaper queue again for consideration the next time I budget time for the news.

Through this cycle of browsing, curating, and consuming, it is possible to benefit from the vast array of information available today without being overwhelmed by it and going down into a rabbit hole of news consumption that you only emerge from hours later, eating into valuable time that you had planned to spend elsewhere.

Participation — A Double Edged Sword

Think twice before you switch from being a consumer of news to a participant in discussion of the news. These two very distinct activities seem to blend together in the minds of many people and greatly increases the time spent on the process. The news has never been a completely one-way process. Many of the most vociferous debates of the early period of American history involved dueling editorials and letters published in the young country’s many flourishing newspapers. However, never before has the two-way process been more democratic and immediate than it is today. By participating, we are harnessing multiple psychological forces that can quickly drag us into a never-ending vortex.

The psychological aspects of the internet have been understood for some time and internet addiction is nothing new. However, the mass adoption of smartphones over the past decade has made the situation far worse. Scientists have found that the use of smartphones can activate the same dopamine pathways that are triggered by chemical addictions. Why is this the case? Humans crave novelty and attention. Phones are set up, by default, to provide a non-stop stream of notifications and other stimuli designed to satisfy our urge to receive feedback of all sorts. We are assaulted by this on a daily basis just from email and text message alerts. When we start participating in discussions of the news, especially on any controversial topic, the intensity of these many mental interrupts increases, sometimes exponentially when things “go viral” on social media.

Anyone who has participated on Twitter or Facebook can immediately relate to the dopamine pathway theory. Don’t try to deny it … when you post a clever tweet, you have an urge to check back to see how many people have responded, liked, or retweeted the content. The same is true for Facebook, Instagram, and now for TikTok, the latest social media craze that has taken off despite sinister links to China. Hours can go by after you start participating in dissemination of the news and get sucked into the vortex of “discussion”.

At a very fundamental level, what people are doing on social media while consuming the news is an activity totally distinct from actual consumption of the news. Even for those who enjoy interacting on social media, clearly separating time devoted to discussion from time devoted to news consumption can improve productivity and your general state of mind.

Silent Interludes

Last summer, I went on a one week vacation that made it impossible to remain connected to civilization. This silent interlude was by design, of course, but one need not be physically unable to access the internet to benefit from occasional breaks.

As I type these words, it is Monday morning and my interaction with electronics since Saturday afternoon has been limited to writing this post and answering a few texts. My iPhone no longer displays any alerts whatsoever other than phone calls and text messages from those I have designated as VIPs. During this time, I have read a hundred pages of Ron Chernow’s The House of Morgan, fifty pages of Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics, an assortment of other printed content, spent time with family, and watched Super Bowl LIV, all without the distraction of the news or the dopamine rushes associated with social media.

Balance is difficult to strike in a world where information flows like a firehose and is discussed in real-time on multiple social media platforms. However, by browsing and curating content in a deliberate manner prior to consuming the content, we can benefit from the richness of information in the twenty-first century while retaining a sense of focus and purpose.

Staying Informed Amid the Noise
  1. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, p. 21 []
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