Monday Musings (Why Daily News is Bogus)


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Hi friends,

Greetings from Lisbon!

I came out here for a wedding, and will now spend the week rewriting my Ultimate Guide to Writing Online. If the edit goes well, the essay will double as the outline for my first book, which is an absolutely wild thing to say — but I think it's time to start working on it!

A little note about my writing process: I start Musings right when I wake up every Monday. For a few weeks now, I've been writing a new article for each edition of the newsletter. To my amazement, I've begun dreaming sentences and paragraphs on Sunday night. By the time I open my eyes in the morning, my mind's worked out 30-50% of this email to you.

Here's what I want to share this week:

  1. Write of Passage Podcast: These 3-6 minute podcast episodes are one of the best ways to learn the basics of my online writing method, which is built on three principles: (1) write from abundance, (2) write from conversation, and (3) write in public. The episodes are 4-8 minutes long, with absolutely no fluff. Each covers a different principle of online writing. Listen to my podcast here (iTunes | Spotify | Overcast).
  2. How Learning Happens: The school system has a flawed model of motivation. Too many teachers treat their students like Pavlovian dogs. Instead, they should follow in the footsteps of Richard Feynman and remember that learning begins with inspiration.
  3. The YouTube Video: If you prefer a YouTube video about How Learning Happens, you can watch it here.

Daily News is Bogus

My friend Justin says that if you want to understand an industry, you should ask: "Who is the ideal customer?"

In healthcare, the ideal customer has a slow-burn chronic illness, which makes them dependent on the system, but not so sick that they die and stop paying bills. Since the system makes money when patients are sick, only 2.9% of America's healthcare spending goes to preventative cures. This makes for a short health span, but a long life span.

In the media industry, the ideal customer is the daily news consumer. Since this consumer has a daily morning ritual, they can dependably be sold ads. Historically, media has been a tough industry to make profitable. Daily news companies are a major exception. Today, the most prominent ones are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Though running a daily news company is an excellent way to make money, an obsession with daily news is bad for society.

I don't really blame the news companies though. The root of the problem begins with the problematic structure of the Internet, which has a huge recency bias.

— —

The Current and the Wind

You've probably been told reading the news is the best way to stay informed. That's false. Most news is "wind," and we're far more informed when we study the "currents" of society.

I grew up close to the San Francisco Bay, known for some of the gnarliest currents in the world. It's a great place for sailing. But when novice sailors show up to the dock, they focus on the winds. Expert sailors focus on the currents. Winds are fickle and ever-changing, while the currents are consistent and predictable.

Source: PBS
Credit to Seth Godin for the analogy.

In society, the winds are the daily news. The currents are deeper trends — too invisible to be covered in the daily news, but so strong they exert a heavy influence on our lives. Demographics, cultural trends, and technological shifts come to mind.

Daily newspapers are problematic because they incentivize the creation of manufactured stories.

As David Nasaw wrote in his biography of William Randolph Hearst (one of America's most successful media figures): "The measure of a commercially successful newspaper is not simply how well it reports the big events, but what it does when there are no dying statesmen, bloodthirsty desperadoes, or heinous crimes to write about. Hearst succeeded in New York not only because he knew how to report the big stories, but because he was a master at constructing news from nothing."

Today's daily news companies are no different. They're masters at magnifying trivialities, because they'll go out of business if they can't.

By making the winds seem so important, news companies take people away from the deeper and more informative currents of society.

— —

What You Should Read Instead

I'm not saying you should never read the news. I'm just saying that you shouldn't default to the news as the thing to read. If reading the newspaper, or scrolling through a gale force of email newsletters is part of your morning routine, reconsider the habit.

Attention is zero-sum. The opportunity cost of reading the news is saying no to the best things ever published. By obsessing over the news, you're placing tremendous weight on ideas just because they've been published recently. You're not prioritizing care, thoughtfulness, and durability in what you're reading.

By all means, if a story seems particularly relevant, go deep on it. News stories are sometimes worth obsessing over. A few years ago, I became obsessed with the Boeing 737 Max crashes because of what the story had to teach about innovation and bureaucracy. The mishaps that led to the crashes were so intriguing that I wrote an essay about them.

But overall, have a bias for the timeless. Resist the urge to read something just because everybody's shouting about it in the moment. If you need extra convincing, heed Nassim Taleb's advice: "To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers."

Like the wind, the vast majority of news stories are impossible to ignore in the moment, but completely irrelevant once they're gone.

Focus on the currents instead. If you need recommendations, I've spent the past five years collecting some for you.

Photo of the Week

Marshall McLuhan once described the "city as a classroom." Following that analogy, much of the best learning I do happens when I travel, which is why I get so obsessed with the cities I visit.

Big cities (with a population of at least 500,000) are the ideal size for learning. They're big enough to cater to a diversity of interests, but small enough to be understandable. Each one has a distinct feel. Blogs like Strong Towns have posts about almost every place you'll visit, and you can usually read the entire Wikipedia article of a city in one sitting. I also recommend Wrath of Gnon's writing.

I spent all of yesterday walking around Lisbon, and two things stuck out:

  1. Lisbon is the San Francisco of Europe: It's temperate, hilly, and liberal like San Francisco. It similarly has seven hills, cable cars, lots of graffiti, and a surprising number of homeless people. One of the major landmarks is also a bright red bridge.
  2. From Wealth to Poverty: Portugal's output per person was higher than either France or Spain in the 18th century. A century later, it was the poorest country in Western Europe. An economic resource curse was to blame. The discovery of gold in Brazil made the Portuguese less competitive in the tradeables sector and led to a rise in prices for non-tradable goods relative to tradeables imports. This process, where the rapid development of one sector in the economy precipitates a decline in other sectors and appreciates the value of the currency, is known as Dutch Disease. For Portugal, the discovery of gold crushed other parts of its economy.

And if you're ready to start reading about cities, here's the essay I just published about my hometown of Austin, Texas.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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