Wanted: News Smoothing

Back in the fall, I got all caught up in the election, like everybody else, and I added a bunch of blogs to my RSS feeds in Google Reader. I’m thinking that I might need to cut back to pre-election levels, if not lower, though. Following too many political blogs is giving me whiplash.

This has really been brought home to me as the progress of the stimulus bill has coincided with a busy patch, meaning that I’ve been sitting down in the evening to 60-80 posts worth of stimulus bill commentary. Going through a whole day’s worth of blog posts about the stimulus reads something like:

The bill’s in good shape… Reid has the votes… No he doesn’t… The bill is doomed… The Republicans have totally played Obama… No, Obama sold us out… Wait, maybe it’s all a double-bluff smokescreen… Obama’s a genius… The bill’s going to pass, and it’ll be AWESOME… Obama is Wizard FDR… Wait, the bill’s falling apart… Ben Nelson is the Antichrist… The Republicans are going to doom us all… Aiieeeee! A Balrog!

And that’s just one blog. And here’s the thing: if you sort out what actually happened during the day, the answer is: Nothing. A bunch of Senators and Representatives made faintly ridiculous speeches on C-Span, while others tried to work out some sort of compromise position.

I think that what I need is some sort of news smoothing algorithm. If I could get a six- or eight-hour running average of the political blogs I read, my life would be a lot better.

Of course, thinking about it a little more, the solution is obvious. The news smoothing algorithm already exists, and has for years. It’s called a newspaper.

What I really want is probably something like an old-fashioned daily newspaper, something that takes twenty-four hours worth of world events, and generates a summary of what happened. And then does the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next.

The fundamental problem here is that the list of events that really demand hour-by-hour news coverage and analysis is very short, and does not include the passage of legislation. The constant stream of hyperventilating articles about the last half-hour’s worth of hints and rumors and rumors of hints is exhausting, and serves no real purpose.

There’s really something to be said for the “old media” approach of producing news reports a few times a day, on a regular schedule. That’s a much better fit with the actual progress of events than the 18-posts-per-day blogging cycle. Most of the wild oscillations in the tone and content of blog reporting are just noise, and it would probably be better for everyone’s mental health if everyone would take a deep breath, back away from the keyboard, and do something else for a few hours.

(This is not, by the way, an endorsement of “old media” like 24-hour news channels, which are basically blogs with more pictures and fewer words. I’m talking old old media– newspapers and evening news broadcasts.)

That’s not to say that there isn’t some value added by the blog format– I like getting news and commentary from sites that have a distinctive voice. I also like the individual quirks that come through in blogs– Kevin Drum’s cats, Matt Yglesias’s weird fascination with the NBA, Ezra Klein’s foodie posts. The feeds that will get the axe whenever I get around to cleaning out Google Reader are the massive and indistinct group blogs, or the ones where the proprietor works extra hard to sound like a journalist, with no hint of personality.

Really, though, I’m starting to think that some of my older colleagues have the right idea: read the print New York Times in the campus center in the morning, check a few newspaper web sites around 4 in the afternoon, and call it a day. It’d certainly help lower tha ambient stress level.