These are the best of times, and the worst of times, for being well informed.
We have a vast landscape of news sources, yet we tend to view them through a peephole rather than a porthole.
If you believe, as I do, that it is a civic responsibility to stay abreast of current events, consider taking a few steps to be a better news consumer.
- Don’t be screen-centric. TV, computers and phones bring us most of our news, in forms that are fast and convenient. But if you’re among those who never, ever, come in contact with a physical newspaper or magazine, fix that.
More research is needed, but it appears that people absorb content better when read on a printed page, especially with longer articles. Regardless, holding a paper or magazine and scanning each page is distinctly different, and often more enlightening, than scrolling through the same material on a screen.
- Listen to NPR. I got my start in radio at a time when national hourly newscasts were detailed, reliable and easily available across the dial. They are still produced by several networks, but on many affiliated stations they have been truncated or eliminated. The shining exception is National Public Radio.
Driving through Mississippi and Alabama this summer, a regional network of NPR stations proved to be my best connection to news from Washington and the world. NPR’s hourly newscasts are carried by more than 1,000 stations, where they tend to be part of the conversation, not part of the clutter.
- Read e-letters. The newsletter business is booming. Almost every news organization in America, large and small, will send you a daily email summarizing its coverage. E-letters are usually free and, while not a substitute for the full story, provide a useful starting point for catching up on the day’s news.
I recommend one of the original e-letters and still among the best: Politico’s Playbook. Although it has an inside-the-Beltway focus, it is a very readable and nonpartisan digest, delivered for free before 7 a.m. ET.
- Sample Hannity and Maddow. Depending on your political orientation, you probably watch either Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC- but never both! Try crossing over, at least occasionally.
Hannity and Maddow have emerged as the ratings leaders in cable-TV’s nightly effort to dissect the Trump White House. My friends are aghast when I mention watching both. Still, these two thought leaders help set (in Hannity’s case) or reflect (more so in Maddow’s case) the national agenda.
- Go up front. Even if you’re not a news junkie you are likely to enjoy perusing the front pages of hundreds of daily newspapers, online, for free.
The Newseum in Washington (newseum.org) assembles readable PDFs of front pages- from the Daily News-Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the St. Augustine Record in Florida. If it’s true that “all politics is local,” it can be said that all news is too. You’ll be surprised at how dramatically the mood of the nation is reflected on these daily fronts.
- Go long. Too often we rely on summaries of summaries (indeed, the e-letters cited above are part of that). Stretch your mind and your insight by balancing news digests with long-form articles.
Some of the best reporting these days is being done by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine, among others that invest heavily in hiring top writers and giving them the time and space to really drill down.
- Matriculate. Every so often try reading a college newspaper. Hundreds of student publications are produced on campuses around the country, and while some are read by local residents, most are completely invisible to the general public.
A useful list of the top 50 college newspapers, with links, can be found at collegechoice.net. Number 50 is The Bucknellian at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania; number one is the Yale Daily News in Connecticut. You probably have little interest in, say, food complaints at the dining hall, but when, for example, young Yale journalists assess a Supreme Court nominee, it’s intriguing reading.
- Talk about it. Nowadays we are so set in our opinions that we’re afraid to discuss current events with colleagues, friends and family. If they’re in another camp, or have a differing view, the risk of broaching a subject seems greater than any possible reward.
Yet, this very type of discourse is central to the evolution of our own thinking. I’ve found that creating a small email circle is a useful way to bounce thoughts off people I know, without the peril of raised tempers or overly hurt feelings. If you’re brave enough to talk about news at the office or dinner table, my advice is to listen more and pontificate less.
This is, after all, the age of wisdom, and the age of foolishness. We can each do more to promote the former.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.