Moderation

The news, a Swiss self-help guru claims, is worse than alcoholism. 

Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli wrote a piece called Avoid the News, which was a major inspiration for Dutch journalist Rob Wijnberg, who went on to found The Correspondent. That publication recently reprinted part of Dobelli’s essay

“Today, I’m “clean”. Since 2010, I’ve been entirely news-free, and I can see, feel and report first-hand the effects of this freedom: improved quality of life, clearer thinking, more valuable insights, and vastly more time. I’ve cancelled my newspaper subscriptions, stopped watching TV news, tuned out of the radio bulletins, and stopped exposing myself to online news. It started out as a personal experiment, but now it’s a philosophy of life.”

Dobelli (and Wijnberg) didn’t become hermits. Rather they’ve shifted their media consumption to what Dobelli calls long-form pieces, including “long newspaper and magazine articles, essays, features, reportage, documentaries and books.”

That longform consumption includes The Correspondent, which Wijnberg is an editor of. 

According to them, Googling is ok, books should be set aside after 20 pages if they haven’t “expanded or altered your worldview,” textbooks are good and should be read. You should walk through airports, which often have news on or displayed, quickly. 

It’s not totally clear to me how you’re supposed to know what to Google or what books to read if you’re under a media blackout, but perhaps there’s an explainer in Dobelli’s forthcoming book, Stop Reading the News. 

I realise that as a person working for a news service, I am biased in favor of frequent news stories. My job is, after all, to write them. But it’s unclear to me, how you create longer-form journalism without being aware of what is happening on a day to day basis? I guess, when you sit down to research topics, you simply rely on what other people have already done. 

Even if you don’t work in the news media, I find the idea of opting out entirely of the news troubling. Dobelli defines news as: “A bus accident in Australia. An earthquake in Guatemala. President A is meeting President B. Actress C has divorced celebrity D. A missile launch in North Korea. Argentina is bankrupt. A record-breaking app. An international corporation fires its CEO. A man from Texas eats five kilos of live worms. A man stabs his grandmother. The closing price of the Dow Jones.” 

Missing any of those pieces of news individually isn’t that serious, but taken together, you’re choosing to opt-out of pretty much anything happening in the world beyond your tiny corner of it. Presumably, if you live Guatemala or have relatives there, you’d heard about the earthquake. But otherwise, unless one of a handful of “acceptable” long-form sources happens to make a documentary about it, you would be utterly unaware. 

I suspect Dobelli would argue that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know. But I don’t think that shutting yourself off from the news from most of the rest of the planet makes you a good global citizen. The media, as it is, has a bias towards rich, white people living in “the West.”  Consuming less information about Guatemala in favor of the New Yorker isn’t going to help your perspective on that. 

I will point out that while Dobelli and Wijnburg are enjoying their airport speed walk and documentaries, many people are fighting and dying simply to have access to the internet so they can have a small bit of news. 

I do not, though, disagree with all of Dobelli’s points. The news, the constant updates from ticker, the running text at the bottom of the screen, they can be stressful, anxiety-inducing and often not useful in a broader context. 

If that’s how you would categorize your news consumption, might I suggest something else: moderation. 

I realise that “Moderation: Just doing a little bit less or a little bit more” doesn’t exactly make for a grabbing book title. No one will ask me to give a TED talk on checking Facebook a less and switching to a weekend-only newspaper delivery. 

We humans have this weird fixation with drastic solutions to our problems. Do you drink too much? Never touch a drop again. Want to be healthier? Never eat another carb. Spend too much time on Instagram? Delete the app. 

Dobelli, in fact, makes this comparison. “In fact, the news is every bit as dangerous as alcohol. Even more so, actually, because there are obstacles to drinking, whereas you are actively encouraged to read the news.” As the child of an alcoholic, I can tell you I would have much rather had a news junkie parent than a constantly drunk one. 

There is ample evidence that complete abstinence is a terrible way to change your behavior which is why people fail at it repeatedly. 

(Which is not to say that if AA or Atkins has worked for you, that your experience is somehow negated. You’re an exception and that’s fine.) 

If your New Year’s resolution is to stop reading the news (or stop eating carbs or stop drinking, maybe try something that might actually work. Cut back. Unfollow news organisations on Facebook. Or restrict your Twitter consumption to only the evenings. Or replace a daily newspaper subscription with a magazine. Those are all “or” by the way, again the point isn’t to go cold turkey. 

These are the sort of habits which are most likely to stick. And they have the added benefit of not resulting in you being an uninformed goon. 

An addendum to say that it seems Rolf Dobelli is a bit of a plagiarising dick. And he’s stolen from another dick, Nassim Talib (author of The Black Swan, who is actually the guy who coined the entire idea of avoiding the news.)