Bring back the Morning Edition!

Of all the things that I miss most about the old print news paradigm, I miss discovery the most.

That feels like a weird thing to write today when there’s literally infinite content out there and it’s easy to fall down rabbit holes at Wikipedia or TV Tropes or Reddit, but that’s not the same type of discovery I’m talking about. Nor, exactly, am I talking about the kind of discovery that might get someone to read what I’m writing here—the ability to get your thoughts out into the world.

Instead, I’m thinking about the way that I used to read the newspaper every morning, or various weeklies when they came out: for the most part, I read them cover to cover. Starting on my high school commute, I would read the Times backwards to the front. I’d usually start with the Arts section, scanning the front page for the article that caught my eye first before ultimately reading every review, interview and blurb; then I’d move on to Sports and BusinessDay before reading the op-eds and then ultimately the news.

And the result was that I wound up exposed to a lot of stuff that I definitely wouldn’t have clicked on. I might not read an entire article about the new lead dancer at the New York City Ballet, but I’d see the headline and read at least the lede and the nut graf. In the front section, thanks to the old pyramid AP style, I could read about each item until I lost interest—but at least I could get the gist of things.

But today, when I only get the Times on the weekend and my local paper usually gets delivered after I have left for my commute to Manhattan, I’m reading most of my news on a tablet. And reading online, with its bottomless well of content, means that I’m reading far more narrowly than I did before. Because I can never have the sense that I’ve finished reading the paper for the day, I’m more likely to scan the headlines a few times a day and maybe click on four or five articles to read them in more detail. I’m missing a lot of things I would have discovered serendipitously in the past.

Two things are relevant here: there’s just more stuff being written today for the Times (or any other individual paper) than 25 years ago, and it’s updating constantly. Even in the days of 108-page Tuesday papers, not All the News published on in the last 24 hours would actually be Fit to Print. But it’s the idea that I can come back multiple times throughout the day to get updates on stories that pushes against my completionist tendencies, because there’s nothing to be completed.

And the print edition isn’t a solution on its own, either. The Weekender (getting the paper Friday, Saturday and Sunday) is often a Greatest Hits of articles that I already read earlier in the week. The Business article that caught my eye on Tuesday is the lead article on B1 on Friday; they run the 36 Hours travel column not the Saturday after it is published online, but the Saturday after that.1The Kamala Harris article that made a moderate splash when it was posted on Oct. 10 was the cover article on Sunday, Oct. 22. Twelve days later! On the one hand, why would you sit on that if it’s ready to go; on the other, why even bother putting it in print so much later? The result is that the paper sections seem inconsequential now, too, so I’m already in a mindset to skim when I do have the newsprint in front of me.

In fairness to the Times, I’m pretty sure that this is an issue that everyone is facing to some degree or another. I see it in the local paper; the discovery issue is a problem at all-online organizations too, from Gothamist and my local to Defector (which is, these days, the closest I come to a completionist stance—and even then I’m probably only reading half of what they’re publishing, since I don’t particularly care about the NFL or NCAA football). Too many organizations throw up a list of headlines and photos and call it a day, and that isn’t going to pull in a reader that isn’t initially sure what they want to read.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is. I’m not even sure if anyone else sees this as a problem or if I’m the only person missing it: After I wrote, “I don’t know what the answer is”, my immediate draft was, “Like everyone else, my media diet is scattered across multiple websites, apps and email newsletters.” That is an extremely broad reading of “everyone else”; it doesn’t even describe everyone in my household. I know that there’s certainly no hope for a single digest that combines all this stuff in one place. I was poking around RSS again lately, and just like fifteen years ago it’s very easy to get to an overwhelmed state with 1000 unread items. When the issue is too much stuff that gets constantly updated, the solution is definitely not “pull in all the stuff that is constantly updated.”

What I really want is not just a daily digest, but a daily digest that is broken out into the old broad sections of the past: International, National, Local. Business, Arts, Sports. Something that shows me not just the headlines but at least the first few grafs of each story, so even if I decide not to click through to the full article I have a better idea of what is happening in the story. It would have a good selection of articles for each section, but it wouldn’t be overwhelming, the way that an “email digest” or website front page with just headlines and a few images can be.

It would need to be an app or a webpage, since this kind of display would quickly run up against Gmail limits (not to mention that you would still need to click out of the email to get the full article). And I would want to be able to switch between sections quickly by swiping. And, ideally, it would be updated just two or three times a day: a morning edition, an evening update, and maybe an overnight run.

The Times comes closest to what I’m looking for, even if they probably won’t ever get there exactly. The Today’s Paper view actually isn’t great. It breaks down into comprehensible sections, but the main view is still headlines only. It also has the “articles originally published several days ago” issue (and is only updated once a day). But it’s a place to start: a slower-moving collection of articles that could be read start to finish.

What I like even more is the “breaking news” blog format that they have adopted increasingly since the start of the Pandemic, which is almost exactly the format I’m looking for, if a little narrowly targeted. Each theme generally has a summary on top, followed by more detailed updates below. Usually, the summary and each headline has a couple of paragraphs below it followed by a “read more” link that immediately loads the remainder of the story. It’s more or less exactly what I’m looking for, except that it’s for a single topic—it’s not aimed at a broad catch up the way the old paper sections did. A new top-level home page that linked a view like that for each broad subject would offer a comprehensible jumping off point—update it just once or twice a day and you’ve combined the best aspects of the internet with the old slow news schedule.

For a variety of reasons I’m not sure that the Times is really motivated to fix this; presumably, their ChartBeat numbers or the equivalent are telling them this is what works, that this brings in the most hits and readers. The trend over the last ten years has been more classifications, more chronological, and always up to date. The Today’s Paper view is presumably buried at the bottom of the section list on mobile for a reason.

But maybe this is a classic case of good intermediate decisions ultimately leading to a negative result.

Maybe the constant flow of news has devalued it for readers—and for advertisers, too. Maybe there’s an audience for a slightly slower form of news that takes the time to eke out more details, and wants a little more breadth in their coverage. The publishing schedule rewards the scoop, no matter how small or inconsequential—but wouldn’t readers benefit if reporters took a little longer, made the extra call for another quote? Misinformation, whether it is intentional or just the fog of war, is a major threat to our society already. A trusted publisher known for taking the time to get the facts right could help push back against the flood.

There was a thread on MetaFilter this weekend about a man who has completely cut the news out of his life. On MetaFilter—a site once so synonymous with news junkies that the Morning News satirized it live-blogging the apocalypse—the majority of commenters were at least understanding of the approach. They wrote about the benefits of bailing out from keeping up with the news; many talked about the anxiety that comes with following the blow-by-blow of ongoing events, and the relief that comes with going on a news diet.

None of this is necessarily new; you can find similar critiques going back thirty, sixty, even ninety years ago. But the prevalence of this perspective is new, and it’s concerning for both publishers and society at large. Doomscrolling fatigue is real, and combined with the sunsetting of the social media era and Big Tech’s retreat from journalism, it’s not just new financing models that are needed to rescue the industry; the news is going to need to find new publishing modes too.

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