The News Fire Hose

Ezra Klein bemoans the life of the modern infovore today. But since all the rest of us are frenzied infovores too, here's the telegraphic version:

Like a lot of people I know, I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter....It's like an instant-pleasure button....I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader....[This] biases me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.....You lose a lot in this trade-off: Blogs make for quick reading, but — with some exceptions — less deep understanding. But they're easier to read, and updated constantly, and so it's almost always easier to scroll through some blogs then pick up a book. That's particularly true during the workday, when I need to find grist for my next post now....And let's not even get into how often I uselessly click over to Gmail while doing other things. My mental commentary is almost goldfishlike: "Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail..."

You get the idea. In fact, this kind of lament has practically become a genre in its own right these days. But I keep thinking: are things really that different? Especially for someone in Ezra's profession?

I don't want to make a maximal case here, but think for a minute about what life was like for reporters in, say, the 60s and 70s. There was no Twitter, no email, and no blogs, obviously. But there were televisions in every newsroom. There was obsessive checking of the two or three or four wire service machines clattering away in the corner. There was the phone ringing off the hook. There was reading all your competitors — newspapers and magazines — which might have been a little less frantic back then but actually sucked up more time. There were endless newsletters and tout sheets to keep up with. There was the same round of face-to-face interviews on Capitol Hill or Wall Street or wherever your beat was that we have today. There was mail — you know, the kind written on paper — to read and possibly respond to. Deadlines were still deadlines, and the technology of the time made meeting them every bit as stress-inducing as it is today.

Things are more frenetic today. But I have a feeling we all overplay just how much more frenetic they are for people in the news business. A couple of weeks ago I read My Paper Chase, a memoir by former London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, and his blow-by-blow description of working on a breaking news story at an ordinary small town daily outside Manchester in 1952 (it's on pages 153-59 if you're interested) is, if anything, more harrowing than the information firehose we put up with today. I don't think journalism was any better for your blood pressure then than it is today.

Again: I'm not trying to make a maximal case here. We surely have a bigger, faster flood of information at our fingertips than we did 40 years ago. On the other hand, we also have pretty awesome tools for classifying it, skimming it, and verifying it. I can use Google to check a fact in 30 seconds that would have taken minutes or hours just a couple of decades ago.1 And that RSS feed that shovels so much stuff at me also allows me to ingest it and search it and outline it and save it with just a few keystrokes.

And books? Yeah, it's hard to find the time. But seriously, does anyone think the ink-stained wretches of fifty years ago spent luxurious hours perusing the latest policy tomes from the UC Press and then thinking deep thoughts about them? Nah. They glanced at them between phone calls and tried to pick out interesting tidbits here and there, just like we do. The species of stress we endure may have changed over the years, and it's probably increased, but I don't think the change is quite as dramatic as we sometimes make it out to be. News is news, and it's always had a fire hose quality to it.

1In fact, I just did. That breaking news story from Evans' book? The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash, October 8, 1952. It took ten seconds to find. That kind of capability is an underappreciated stress reducer.