Why I Quit News

I quit consuming news in 2013. If I mention that in a conversation, there are three common reactions: some blurt “how can you live without knowing what is going on in the world?”, others categorize me as ignorant, and some declare “I should do that too”. I decided to prioritize reading that impacts my choices and decisions.

How & Why

Years ago, I realized I had not read a book in a long time. I read a lot, but the content was mostly news articles, blog posts, and tweets. I started to question if the reading was steering my life towards the outcomes I wanted. I rarely identified anything influential to my actions in the news I was reading. I decided to test prioritizing books. Here is what I did:

  1. Listed the benefits of reading long-form content (Logic)
  2. Curated a list of books I found interesting (Motivation)
  3. Selected a book that was divided into short sections (Low-commitment)
  4. Set up a daily reminder to read one page of a book1 (Timing & Trigger)

I also made books priority-reading. Emails, text messages, social media feeds, articles, and everything else comes after. That does not mean I only read books, as I still spend (too much) time reading the above, but books are the priority. I learn a fair amount from Twitter2 and blogs (e.g., blogs I mentioned in an earlier text). Emails are somewhat mandatory reading. A single question guides my reading priority: “does reading this improve my choices and decisions?"3.

Benefits of books

Improve focus. I have found myself struggling lately with focus and getting to the zone4. Periodically, my mind is on overdrive and constant task-switching is the symptom. Books help because reading reduces distractions. Great books help immensely because I don’t want to do anything else.

Old knowledge is power. The majority of books I read are old. Nearly all the books I own are old5. This is based on the idea that if I somehow discover an old book, there’s a good chance the book is high signal. The same is not true with new books. There’s little evidence of high signal before inorganic marketing has seized.

Signal-to-noise ratio. Well-curated list of books offers the best signal-to-noise ratio6. While anything well-curated can be high signal, it’s the ease of curating a high-signal list of books that is exceptional. Readers recommend books they’ve enjoyed. I advise you to not accept recommendations of books people have recently read. Rather ask for their all-time favorites - either in general or inside a specific category (e.g., self-help, sci-fi, biographies). Additionally, I can recommend Bill Gates' annual book recommendations and the books recommended within your favorite books7.

Downsides of news

News is unproven. News is information on something that happened recently. While news tries to give a balanced and objective view of the events, when something just now occurred, the information is unproven. As ~100% of news is first published online, the reporters' incentives are to maximize page views8. Because emotions drive commenting and sharing online 9, publishers maximize page views by triggering emotions. This results in us getting biased or skewed information because that causes emotional reactions. News can be entertaining, but as publishers maximize speed and clicks, we lack facts.

News is uninteresting. While news can be interesting, it’s the volume of news that makes them uninteresting as a category. The majority of news is useless. An old trick to test if the news is valuable: if you can find a couple of weeks old newspaper, try reading it. What percentage of it is still interesting today? Roughly all sports & entertainment topics are useless after a couple of weeks, the majority of political content is outdated, and many advertisement offers have expired. What’s left? Some cartoons, a few columns, and the 1-2 articles that touched on an interesting subject, but didn’t teach anything new to you.

In contrast to books, where many contain the author’s learnings throughout their life until the point of publishing10. The book writing process tends to be years, not hours. This difference in effort and duration incentivizes book authors to write long-standing and relevant content. If your book’s title is great and the content is bad, you won’t sell many copies. If your news article has a great title and the content is bad, you’ll still get lots of page views.

News is negative. Page views drive news and emotions drive page views. The stronger the emotion triggered by the title, the more likely the user is to click on the link11. The stronger the emotion triggered by the text, the more likely the user is to share the text. This means news publishers use negative stories and narratives to trigger emotions. We are wired to stop rationalizing when our emotions are triggered. When you read a story that triggers negative emotions, what benefit did you gain?

Benefits of news

There are some reasons to read the news. If your income depends on selling or providing services to a company, you should follow the news on them. News can also provide perspective on life: compare the misery and negativity of news to your life and you might feel better about yours! News can also give you more energy: learning can energize you to take action on the things that impact your life.12 The most useful and hard-to-replicate thing about news is broadness. Reading a wide range of news provides a variety of inputs allowing you to recognize patterns across subjects. Pattern recognition is the number one thing I miss about reading news. It’s harder to identify emerging trends without seeing what people consume. If your profession is about widespread pattern recognition (e.g., professional investor), reading news seems mandatory.

Still not reading news

For me the importance of consuming news rounds to zero. There is too much noise and not enough signal. While I have seen positive change by stopping news consumption, many much smarter people than myself read the news. The most visible example to me is my wife, who diligently studies the news each morning. That benefits me too because she wants to discuss and share important topics. Thus, I get some of the signal without exposing myself to the noise. This is also true in general. Many people use the news as a discussion starter, which means we ignorant people still hear the important news.

The biggest problem with books is this: there are too many good books to read them all. We have to find a consistent mechanism for curating which ones to read. While the same problem exists with any reading, with books you can control that to an extent you cannot control any other form of reading. Anything published online by a media company is algorithmic, which means you are not in control of what you read. That’s why books are the best source of information on things that matter.13

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  1. Two notes here: 1) the first step in any change must be tiny. One page takes about a minute to read, so I wasn’t committing to anything that requires lots of time or effort. 2) I still read at least a page per day. The book that guarantees I read at least that one page is The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. I’m occasionally asked who’s my favorite author and Ryan is the only one whose books I read consistently. Some I read every year (Ego is the Enemy, The Daily Stoic) and some are one-offs but still interesting (Trust Me, I’m Lying). ↩︎

  2. I have an extensive muted words list on Twitter. I don’t see the most prevalent things on Twitter, like US politics, news, or gossip. ↩︎

  3. I still read books that don’t impact my choices or decisions, because some books are fun. They just aren’t a priority. Examples of fun books I’ve read and liked in the past couple of years: Catching the Wolf of Wall Street (what happened after Wolf of Wall Street), Frank Herbert’s Dune (a movie based on the book was released in 2021)), and John Vaillant’s The Tiger (a true story about Amur tigers in Russia’s far east). ↩︎

  4. this is intermittent for me. Sometimes it’s not a problem at all, other times it’s hard to focus for ten minutes. ↩︎

  5. measured from the original publication date ↩︎

  6. some say that high-end courses are better, but I have not spent the time & money on courses to know if that’s accurate. ↩︎

  7. mostly a thing in non-fiction. ↩︎

  8. for my master’s thesis, I interviewed heads of major publications and one of the common themes was that everyone’s incentives are to maximize page views. If it’s a paid publication, it’s the combination of page views and subscriptions. ↩︎

  9. e.g. conclusion in many studies, e.g. this study by Dafonte-Gómez, A. (2018). News Media and the Emotional Public Sphere| Audiences as Medium: Motivations and Emotions in News Sharing. International journal of communication, 12, 20. ↩︎

  10. usually the first book by an author is the best. Some get better at writing, but the signal-to-noise ratio tends to be the best in the first book. ↩︎

  11. or comment & share it without ever reading more than the title ↩︎

  12. While writing, I realized that this must have been influenced by Scott Adams' brilliant “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”, which is on my biannual re-reading list. Here’s the paragraph in full (p. 100): ↩︎

  13. There are exceptions. E.g., getting your information on COVID-19 from a book would have been a mistake during 2019-2020. One could argue that getting your information on COVID-19 from roughly anywhere was a mistake during 2019-2020, as so much of the signal was later proven noise. Yet, previous pandemics were a great source of information and the curated knowledge was available in books. For information on the war in Ukraine, books are probably better than news. Having recently listened to Dan Carlin’s fantastic Hardcore History Show episodes 62-66 titled “Supernova in the East I-V”, which are based on history books, I doubt that there is a better source of knowledge on the war than history books. ↩︎