I once had a boss who didn’t read the paper. At least, I’m pretty certain he didn’t, given the number of times he suggested stories we had just done and the blank looks he gave me when I talked about stories in the paper that day.
I would leave those conversations wondering why he was in the newspaper business, given the lack of attention and respect he paid the journalism.
Now I think I was getting the wrong message. He was inadvertently telling me that the journalism I was producing wasn’t worth his time.
I just returned from two weeks in France. I was basically off the news grid. I didn’t read any papers. I occasionally turned on the television, but I speak no French so the only news I got was from what I could figure out from the crawl on news stations and that wasn’t much. Oh, I figured out that B.B. King had died, that people died when a train in Philadelphia derailed, and the Boston Marathon bomber got the death sentence. That’s about it.
I can’t say that I had a fear of missing out because, you know, France.
But here’s the thing: When I returned, I didn’t get the sense that I missed anything worth knowing. Yes, three more candidates who have no chance of winning entered the GOP presidential race. The NBA playoffs are still going on. Still. Going. On. Deflategate, which I had forgotten about four months ago, is back with the conclusion we all knew four months ago.
When I was a newspaper editor, I used to get mocked by my staff because even when I was on vacation, I kept up with the paper and the news of the day, and I emailed suggestions and ideas. I said I preferred to keep up so I didn’t have to catch up.
Short-term thinking. I should have gone on a news blackout. I should have come back after a week away and evaluated what we had published that actually mattered in the scheme of things. How many government meetings we had covered where nothing significant happened. How many stories of wrecks and break-ins that no one except the person and his neighbors cared about. How many long inside-the-beltway political stories that didn’t provide a true bullshit meter. How many long stories that were published only to fill space.
Such an exercise would have changed my perspective on what a news organization needed to be sensitive to. My news blackout is how most people operate. They don’t follow the news obsessively. They’re in and out — and more of them are moving out of our operations, newspapers and TV. Don’t believe me? There is an easy test if you’re a newspaper: Get a list of people who put in orders for a week-long vacation stop. When they return, ask them about how they kept up with the news from home and whether they feel they missed anything.
I suspect they will tell you how ephemeral the news we think is so important truly is.
Next, do it yourself. Go off the grid during your next vacation. Purposely ignore the news. When you return, gauge how much of what your organization published or broadcast you and your community really care about. Figure out how you can create more of those stories and fewer of the stories that don’t actually matter to more than a handful of people.
I’m not sure what I would have come up with. Maybe a local version of the Skimm as the Charlotte Observer has done. Maybe a personalized email that we would send to subscribers upon their return to the world with the one worth-knowing news events that happened each day they were gone. Maybe something like Billy Penn.
My guess is that one thing is certain if you go on a news blackout: You’ll come back and change how your news organization covers the news.
Of course, I have no idea whether I missed anything that matters to me personally because I wasn’t here and I’m not going to go back to find out.
But eventually, I’ll know what I missed because I, like so many people, subscribe to the philosophy of “if the news is that important, it will find me.”