"Hello, my name is Rolf, and I’m a newsaholic."
If there were self-help groups for news junkies as there are for alcoholics, that’s how I would have introduced myself to the group, hoping they’d understand. But that was more than 10 years ago.
It all started so normally. Born into a middle-class family, I grew up with the usual news routine. If you too were young in the 70s, you’ll probably recognise it. Every weekday at 6.30am, I listened as the paperboy dropped the newspaper into the letterbox by the front door.
Moments later, my mother opened the door a crack and snatched the paper out of the box with a practiced flick of the wrist – she didn’t even have to step outside. On her way into the kitchen, she divided the paper into two sections, placing one in front of my father (she decided which one) and keeping the other for herself. While we enjoyed breakfast, my parents leafed through their respective sections, then swapped.
At 7am on the dot, we listened to the news bulletin on the Swiss national radio station DRS. Not long after that, my father set off for work, and we children were dispatched to school. At noon, the whole family gathered around the table for lunch. Afterwards, around 12.30pm, it was time for more radio news. Ditto at dinnertime, around 6.30pm. At 7.30pm came the highlight of the evening: Tagesschau, a current affairs programme on Swiss National TV.
The news was as much a part of my life as Ovaltine at breakfast. Yet, even then, I had the vague feeling that something wasn’t right. It baffled me that the newspaper arrived in the same thickness and format every single day. The local paper, to which my parents subscribed, consisted of a one-page foreign affairs section, a one-page financial section, a two-page section on the city of Lucerne and so on. It didn’t matter how much or how little had happened the day before.
If something happened on an uneventful day, it would be treated as important and given centre stage, even if on a busy day it would have been treated as unimportant. "I guess that’s just the way it is," I thought – and put it out of my mind.
As the years passed, I turned into a voracious newspaper reader. At the age of 17, this hunger for news from across the world reached its first apex. I would read any newspaper I could get my hands on from cover to cover, omitting only the sports section. As my friends whiled away their time in the woods, on the football pitch, with model aeroplanes or with girls, I spent whole Saturdays in the reading room at the library in Lucerne.
The newspapers were clamped into a wooden stick so that you could hang them up on a peg and the pages wouldn’t fall out. Most of them were so big and the sticks so long and heavy that my wrist would start aching if I sat in one of the armchairs and tried to hold them, so instead I’d settle at one of the enormous desks and read it like a priest turning the pages of a Bible on the altar.
When I read newspapers, I fancied myself an informed young man, unimpressed by the banalities of everyday life – a high-flying intellectual. Presidents shaking hands, natural disasters, attempted coups: this was the wide world, the world that really mattered – and I felt part of it.
I hadn’t just fallen for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. With the advent of the internet in the 1990s, suddenly there was even more to know. Suddenly there was everything. News poured in from every corner of the earth, comprehensive, immediate and free.
Voracious news consumer? Tell me: do you understand the world better now? Do you make better decisions?
The major newspapers and magazines were busy setting up their own websites, and many local papers followed suit. By then, you were never really finished reading the news. You couldn’t be – there was always another headline to read, and by the time you had exhausted those ones, the others already had new headlines and new news.
The second and third generations of internet browsers enabled push notifications and RSS feeds. I subscribed to the lot. The newspapers offered daily newsletters. I signed up to those, too. News podcasts appeared. Couldn’t let myself miss those, could I? It felt like I had my finger on the pulse. I was ardent, intoxicated, drunk. It was like alcohol. Only, I thought, it didn’t dull your mind – it sharpened it.
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. It takes effort to buy alcohol. Time, money. Alcohol will not be delivered free to your home. If you do become an alcoholic and you’re (still) in a relationship, you may have to get creative in hiding the bottles from your partner and getting rid of them when they’re empty. Frankly, it’s a hassle.
The news, however, is not. The news is everywhere, the majority of it is free, and it sidles automatically into your brain. You don’t have to store it anywhere, and there’s nothing to dispose of afterwards.
These "negative obstacles" are what make the news so insidious. I didn’t realise this until much later, by which time I’d spent tens of thousands of hours consuming the news. I asked myself two questions: do you understand the world better now? And do you make better decisions? The answer in both cases was no.
Yet I still felt inexorably drawn to the overwhelming, garish parade of news, even though it was clearly making me anxious. Fragments of news reports were constantly intruding into my reality, and I was suddenly finding it difficult to read longer texts in one go. It was as though somebody had carved up my attention into tiny pieces.
I started to panic that I’d never be able to recover my attention span, that I’d never again be able to assemble these fragments into a whole. Slowly, I began to detach myself from the theatre of news. I deleted the newsletters and the RSS feeds and tried to restrict myself to only a few websites. Yet even that was too much. So I scaled it down further – five sources, then four, then three, then two – and allowed myself only three visits to news sites per day. That didn’t work either. I swung from link to link like an orangutan, rapidly getting lost in the endless jungle of news. I needed a radical solution, so one day I decided: no more news. Full stop. The decision was drastic and immediate, and it worked.
Liberating myself from a news addiction took time, willpower and a readiness to experiment. Above all, I was seeking answers to the following questions: what is the news? What makes it so irresistible? What happens in our brains when we consume it? How can we be so well informed yet know so little?
Renouncing the news in such a drastic manner was particularly tough because many of my friends are journalists. They are some of the most intelligent, funny and sophisticated people I know. Moreover, they chose their profession mainly on moral grounds: to make the world a little bit better and hold those in power to account. Unfortunately, they are now trapped in an industry that has virtually nothing to do with real journalism. All this juggling of the news has made it meaningless.
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.
When I ask you to give up the news, I can do so with a clear conscience. It will make your life better. And trust me: you’re not missing anything important.
News is to the mind what sugar is to the body
So, what exactly is the news? This is the most basic definition: information on events from across the world. 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.
Sometimes the media rather grandiosely calls these snippets of information "breaking news" or "top world headlines". This doesn’t change the fact that they’re largely irrelevant to your personal world. You can safely assume that the more "breaking" the news, the less it actually matters to you.
In comparison to books, news is a recent invention. The format is barely 350 years old. There is no specific day when the news was invented.
Shortly after the invention of the printing press, around 1450, pamphlets with a broad readership came into circulation. For the most part, they consisted of opinion pieces, in today’s parlance, and were often religious or political propaganda.
Developing in parallel to this was a private newsletter industry, which worked on a subscription basis. These newsletters were very expensive, tailored to an elite class of merchants and bankers. They reported on everything from political upheavals to harvests, both domestically and abroad, and they listed arrival times of merchant trading ships, what cargo they carried and which port they were docking at – the kind of detailed, highly specialised information you might find in a business newsletter today.
The first true newspapers, which conveyed information from around the world and were intended for a wide audience, started to be circulated in the early 17th century. The very first was a weekly paper in Strasbourg, the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (1605), then one in the Saxon town of Wolfenbüttel.
Newspaper mania leapt from Germany to Amsterdam to London and finally across all of Europe. By 1640, there were nine newspapers in Amsterdam alone. The first daily newspaper appeared in 1650, the Einkommende Zeitungen in Leipzig. A few decades later, there were hundreds of dailies across Europe. The news had finally become a business. Anything that might pique readers’ interest and boost sales was considered newsworthy by the publishers, regardless of whether it was actually important.
You can safely assume that the more ‘breaking’ the news, the less it actually matters to you.
This fundamental fraud – the new being sold as the relevant – has persisted to this day. It remains the dominant model in print, online, on social media, the radio and television.
What has intensified since these early newspapers is the audacity, the vehemence and the volume with which the new is advertised as relevant.
In the past 20 years, since the advent of the internet and the smartphone, our addiction to the news has become a dangerous mania. You can barely escape it. It’s high time we reconsidered our approach to this glut of news. It’s high time we realised the impact of consuming it and began a detox.
This is a manifesto against the all-you-can-eat menu of the daily news
Perhaps there is a way of gathering information that is not marred with the challenges we find in news consumption. Are there formats that have the power to deliver real understanding, yet are not addictive?
Long-form pieces are the opposite of the news: long newspaper and magazine articles, essays, features, reportage, documentaries and books. Much of their content is valuable, providing new insights and background information. But be careful: these formats are far from a guarantee of relevance. As long as they’re published in media primarily financed through advertising, there’s a danger that even they will prioritise novelty value above relevance.
It’s also worth pointing out that many of these long, high-quality pieces are surrounded by vacuous nonsense that rains down on readers like cheap confetti. In other words, they’re often contaminated by the news. And I don’t want to drink from contaminated sources. So I’ve simply instituted a blanket ban on reading anything in newspapers (print and online) as well as listening to the radio and watching TV.
I’ve chosen a radical path, I know, but there’s no question that the dross we’re spoon-fed every day is not only completely worthless but actively damaging.
The media is feeding us titbits that taste palatable but do nothing to satisfy our hunger for knowledge.
In the past few decades we’ve learned to recognise the many hazards of poor nutrition: insulin resistance, obesity, susceptibility to inflammation and fatigue. All these factors can contribute to an early death. We’ve altered our diets and learned to resist the siren call of sugar and other simple carbohydrates.
We’ve now reached a similar point with the news; we think about it today much as we thought about sugar and fast food 20 years ago. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easily digestible and extremely damaging. The media is feeding us titbits that taste palatable but do nothing to satisfy our hunger for knowledge.
Unlike books and well-researched long-form articles, the news cannot satiate us. We can gobble down as many articles as we like, but we will never be doing more than gorging on sweets. As with sugar, alcohol, fast food and smoking, the side effects only become apparent later.
A healthy diet is important for the body, but good psychological nutrition is equally crucial. Consider this a manifesto against the all-you-can-eat menu of the daily news. So stay strong. Going cold turkey is always hard. But it’s worth it.
What you should do right now is this: banish the news from your life. Opt out. Make it as difficult as possible for you to access your usual news sources. Unsubscribe from all their newsletters. Delete the news apps on your phone and your iPad right this minute. Sell your TV. Delete all the news pages from the favourites in your browser. Don’t choose a news site as your homepage.
When you travel, always take plenty of good books. If you’re on the train or an aeroplane and you notice a newspaper lying around, leave it alone. You’ll gain nothing by flicking through it. Deliberately turn your gaze away from the headlines and towards something more productive. Just leave the paper or magazine where you found it – I don’t care how seductively it tempts you.
Airports often place enormous stands brimming with dozens of free newspapers throughout the terminals. Walk straight on. Most of them are nothing but vapid advertising. If you’re waiting at the gate, sit far away from the screens pumping news into the terminal. The talking heads on TV news are the last thing your brain needs. Ideally, you want to be working, reading a book, or calmly watching the world go by as you let your mind wander.
Read a great book or longform piece a second time. It’s not twice as effective – in my experience, it’s more like ten times as powerful.
If you want to maintain the illusion of "not missing anything important in the world", I suggest skimming a round-up section in some of the international and local media. The Economist has a weekly double-page feature called the World this Week and the Week is specifically geared towards summing up the week’s news.
Above all, read magazines and books that aren’t afraid – and have the resources – to present the world in all its complexity. Newspapers and magazines that primarily feature articles by experts are also valuable.
You could also give a few longform publications a chance – there are many good examples to choose from. The world is a complicated place. Try to read a book a week. If after 20 pages it hasn’t expanded or altered your worldview, or otherwise managed to capture your attention, put it aside. If, on the other hand, you find a book that tells you something new on every other page, read it cover to cover. Then read it again, straight away. When you read something a second time, it’s not twice as effective as the first read-through – in my experience, it’s more like ten times as powerful. I’d also recommend reading longform articles twice.
Now and again, it’s worth reading textbooks. There is no better nourishment for the mind. A textbook is as intensive and nutritious as a bachelor’s degree. You need a basis upon which to understand the world, and textbooks are especially well suited to developing one. Sounds unsexy, but it’s true. The better the base of your understanding – whether that comes from textbooks or study – the easier it is to understand new ideas.
Oh, and Google is allowed! The internet is full of top-notch sources of information. Occasionally, your searches will take you to a news site. This isn’t a disaster. You simply have to make sure you’re not sucked into the whirlpool of other articles vying for your attention. You have to decide what you’re looking for. You have to set your own path. Don’t let the object of your attention be dictated by the news media.
For 10 years, I’ve consistently practised what I preach. The impact on my quality of life and decision-making has been remarkable. Try it. You’ve got nothing to lose. You have so much to gain.