Do you care too much about what you see on Twitter?
That’s not meant as a judgment. Let me be the first to admit I’m addicted to Twitter, and that I often waste ridiculous amounts of energy and time on the banter, conjecture and arguments about everything from breaking news to what a former colleague ordered for lunch.
Despite being among the least powerful social media platforms in terms of driving readers and traffic to stories, Twitter has assumed an outsized role in most newsrooms across the country and is impacting how we as journalists consume and ultimately report on the news.
That’s not just idle speculation or me pushing my own personal addiction to Twitter onto the industry as a whole. According to a recent study by the University of Utah and Temple University, reporters who spend a large amount of time on the social media platform allow it to impact their news judgment. Many get caught up in what the study described as “pack journalism,” where a story is seen as important mainly because other journalists are talking about it on Twitter, rather than assessing its newsworthiness on the merits.
Considering the problems Facebook and Twitter continue to grapple with when it comes to media bubbles and the prominence of fake news stories, can reporters and editors really afford to simply stop consuming news on these social media networks and risk ending up uninformed on the beats they cover?
That’s what Gabriel Snyder is trying to figure out. Snyder, a freelance editor and the former editor of the New Republic, realized during the election that his dependence on Twitter as his primary news source was becoming problematic due to its tendency towards outrage and anger.
“Two thirds or more of the tweets that I was reading were negative,” Snyder said. “It just felt really kind of toxic, and it was not a good place to park my brain for as often as I was.”
After experimenting with several different methods of breaking his Twitter news habit, Snyder started a drastic new experience back in September where he only read news from publications he paid to subscribe to, and only used Twitter as a one-way street to share stories and keep in touch with other journalists.
“To be an informed citizen, do I need to be hooked up to the fire hose, or can I get by relying on editors to choose the most important stuff for me?” Snyder said. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Snyder relies on about 12 paid news sources to keep up to date with what’s going on in the news. The subscriptions range from national newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to several magazines, such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. Snyder is also a long-suffering Brooklyn Nets fans and subscribes to The Athletic for their coverage because the Times does not cover the team full-time.
I spoke to Snyder in early October, when he was a little less than a month into his paid news experiment, and one thing that surprised him was he didn’t feel uninformed or out-of-the-loop by only relying on a handful of news sources. It’s also had a positive impact on his mental health.
“I’ve been able to—in a healthy way—not be part of the news cycle every day, which talking to friends has anecdotally been a somewhat exhausting experience for a lot of people,” Snyder said. “It’s allowed me to just quiet down and reclaim a little bit of mental space for myself and my own thoughts and connections.”
One big success of Snyder’s experience is he has largely been able to avoid the monolithic news narratives that tend to emerge in the social media bubbles created by Twitter and Facebook, often focusing on two or three main stories being discussed at any one given time.
“What is lost is a wider perspective and the fact there are lots of things happening beyond what you just happen to care the most about,” Snyder said. “Relying only on the publications that I pay for has forced me really to read them more deeply, so I’m able to find the stories that weren’t trending that day.”
He’s also wasting less time on the meaningless speculation during breaking news events. For instance, instead of suffering through a celebration of conjecture on Twitter over the potential resignation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he relied instead on stories by the New York Times and the Washington Post which turned out to accurately represent the fact he was remaining with the Trump administration.
There have been downsides to Snyder’s strict media diet. Almost immediately, he realized he needed to rely on a news aggregator like Feedly to organize and consume his news sources because one major problem for him was most of the mobile apps for the sites he subscribes don’t always do a great job showcasing the breadth and diversity of their stories.
One example Snyder pointed to was a story about Vox Media’s advertising sales written by the Wall Street Journal he saw mentioned elsewhere. When he opened the Journal’s mobile app to eventually read the story, he couldn’t find it anywhere.
“They’re really insufficient when it comes to surfacing all of the news they put out every day,” Snyder said of most of the news apps he pays to use. “I don’t mind using Feedly, but it doesn’t seem like the most ideal way to serve a paying customer.”
He is also frustrated by the product side of the companies when it comes to basic things, such as repeatedly asking him to login to view stories. He’s also been annoyed that despite paying to access the news, several companies continue to serve him pages bogged down by full-page ads and auto-play videos.
If someone with Snyder’s experience and devotion to journalism is getting annoyed, imagine what it must be like for a less tech-savvy consumer who likely still has MSN as their computer’s homepage.
“It’s an atrocious system, one which truly seems to be built more for people who read for free rather than the ones who pay,” Snyder said. “As long as this is the case, the future of journalism will not be paid.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]