Thinking and Feeling - How to read the news
Did that subject line already bore you?
I'd like to start this piece by thanking my friends who remain friends with me. You see, I am a mediasplainer. I admit it. So often, when a friend sends me a link about some news development, rather than address the content itself, I ask the oh-so-annoying question, "how did you get to that link"?
A few years ago, people would openly admit things like "saw it on Facebook". They definitely don't anymore. But, I like to dig deeper. A piece from the NY Times is a very different thing if it reached you via a Facebook post vs. a Promoted Tweet vs. a NYT newsletter vs. a non-NYT curated newsletter vs. going to the home page of the NYT vs. a WhatsApp group vs. an iMessage group. To me, the question of how you arrived at a story (or how it found you) is often as important as the content itself.
The medium is no longer the message. The path is the message. Or the road it took to find you is the message. Or something like that, Can and I were riffing on this. Suggestions are most welcome.
Slow and Fast News
Regular readers will know about my obsession with the topic of information consumption. I've presented the Margins five-point plan to fix social media and compared Twitter consumption to porn. It's dominated my professional and personal thinking for nearly a decade. So I try to give myself some a little credit that I'm aware of the circuitous paths that lead an article to you. Armed with this knowledge, I try to be somewhat conscious about my own information consumption.
Last weekend, with all the Trump + COVID shit, I broke every rule I had ever made. I mean, I just let it go. I was doomscrolling for hours. Pulling to refresh the top of my Twitter feed just to see if anything else made it in. Digging into conspiracy rabbit holes. Clicking on Krassensteins and Berensons. I can't really remember anything I read but it was consuming and it was constant.
To juxtapose that Vegas bender of news, the Congressional antitrust report, something I have also long been covering and following, came out. But I didn't have that same libidinous desire to devour oh-so-delicious content. The information was dense and not going to disappear. So I took my time. I read Matt Stoller's take. I read a number of other pieces of coverage. I listened to a few podcasts. I still plan on reading the report. Again, this is a slow grind, and nothing is going to change today. I've continuously been impressed at how the House Antitrust Subcommittee has slowly and methodically kept pushing this forward. While the topic of antitrust can certainly draw emotion, the hearings and reports have been old-fashioned wonkery at its best.
The two contrasting news consumption scenarios reminded me just how wide the gulf between "thinking" and "feeling" content can be. The former is the kind you have to discipline yourself to read. The latter is the kind that you crave. It's human. We’ve now seen a bounty of slickly produced documentaries telling us about dopamine and dark patterns.
Neutrality as Activism
Which also made me think about that Coinbase memo.
Much like cable news, there's an entire genre of business writing that delivers "feeling" content under the guise of "thinking". I read it a few times because I kind of wanted to agree with it. I've previously written about how identity is the low-hanging fruit of brand marketing, and endless companies use it in cynical ways. I read (well, skim) way too many HBR management articles about how to make social justice a "win-win". For a long time, I've felt that the one thing Wall Street had on Sillcon Valley (and most of our current-day brand comms) was an unadulterated honesty of objective: make money. So I thought that's what Brian Armstrong would be saying. When I saw the picture of the 1990s Bulls, I was genuinely hoping he was going to say "I want to assemble a collection of some of the worst humans but greatest competitors and just slaughter the competition".
Nah. Somehow he still tried to couch the post in the language of "mission" while simply laying out a number of pretty standard VC-twitter grievances. My co-host Can put it nicely, "Political apathy is not a neutral stance, but a strongly conservative one, almost by definition." While putting forward this grand proclamation about wanting to "avoid politics", Armstrong was taking a very specific political stance. And there was nothing particularly revelatory about the post. It didn't provide any new way for managers to think about helping employees navigate our current political climate, or even how to help managers NOT think about the lives of their employees outside of the office. It just said things like "default to trust" "be company first" and "sustained high performance".
And the reaction ‘on both sides’ was as strong as one would expect. Which got me thinking of how to mentally process stuff like this.
It's news consumption quadrant time!
Okay, here we go. The X-axis goes Liberal ⇒ Conservative. I use these terms not by party affiliation, but in the sense that my co-host Can wrote: Conservatism is about things that seek to actively preserve the status quo, liberalism is looking to change things.
Now the Y-axis is Thinking ⇒ Feeling. The further you move up the Y, the more you get that weird feeling in your stomach that is some parts rage, some parts elation. More Y, more rush.
So that Armstrong memo, I think was positioned to be down in the middle, but I'd argue is much more written to engender strong feeling:
This got me thinking about a lot of different pieces and people. It almost kind of gave me a framework for whenever I hit some new story. I quickly went through the last five stories on my Instapaper:
As there is no way this Google Slide screenshot will work on mobile, quickly going through:
America Has Lost Its Taste for Iceberg Lettuce - Bloomberg: Justin Fox is one of those Bloomberg columnists I think isn’t regularly in the conversation because he still only writes on the Thinking side of things versus a Noah Smith. But love this piece and while we do talk about kale and escarole, it’s pretty neutral on the Y.
Actioned Analytics Pave the Way to New Customer Value - MIT Sloan Review: I read a lot of this type of stuff for work. It’s like a chastity belt of content and will take you as far away from feeling as possible.
The Last Days of the Trump Scampaign - The Bulwark: I enjoyed putting this more on the liberal side because it’s from Bill Kristol’s new publication, and written by a group that’s conservative by definition, but in this case is pushing change. This newsletter is posted on Substack and was a reminder that Substack content is a lot more feeling on average.
To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks - WIRED: I put this Eli Parisier editorial more on the feeling and liberal side. Thinking through this made me realize that a lot of writing about disinformation and filter bubbles falls deep into the Feeling camp, which is a bit ironic because it’s Feeling content that drives disinformation.
The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan - WSJ: I smiled that I had to include something by Paul Wolfowitz because I’m not exactly a fan of his. But my wife is Taiwanese and I read a lot about Taiwan. I was debating this one because the WSJ commentary section is usually brutally in the Feeling camp, but this one remained on the factual and dry side.
I just listened to a recent episode of Pivot - the Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway podcast. I really enjoyed reading Scott Galloway a few years ago; my whole professional shtick is that business analysis should be more conversational and engaging so he was naturally an amazing early case study. However, he’s progressively been getting more and more Feeling:
Then this week, there was a really important journalism debate within the NY Times. Ben Smith’s most recent media column covered the controversy around the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi, most specifically on the veracity of the Caliphate podcast.
Now, I remember that podcast vividly. It was incredible. I hung on every word. I felt like I was there. But even at the time, I took it more as entertainment than news.
And in a way, that’s how I’ve often felt about The Daily podcast. I listen to it regularly, but I always think of it as more Netflix documentary than Reuters article. Because it pushes the need for storytelling to a point that moves us well past the stage of informing. It has to make us feel, every day for ~25 minutes. The NY Times has been pushing this storyfication of news across a number of channels (that whole absurd election special thing) and it’s clearly been great for their business.
The Caliphate series took this to an extreme. It was an incredible theater. The journalist was the hero in a slickly produced audio package. What was most revealing in Smith’s piece was that this really was the official strategy:
Ms. Callimachi’s approach to storytelling aligned with a more profound shift underway at The Times. The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.
Feeling is generally better for business.
I recognize the best pieces should make you both think and feel and that’s a limitation of this quadrant. Perhaps we need to incorporate some 3D modeling. But hopefully, it’s a start to help you think about what you’re reading.
Note 1: This made me wonder about that Doordash Pizza piece. I think I had expected that would end up falling more in the thinking+liberal quadrant, but it definitely fell far more into the Feeling side of things. That’s in comparison to a post like the Sweetgreen and Society one where I very much wrote it to spark feelings because I was feeling things myself.
I'm reminded of Neil Postman's point in Amusing Ourselves to Death - modern communications technology (starting with the telegraph) introduced decontextualized information, where news became increasingly disconnected from any specific action that individuals could take. It makes sense in this context that news that is more likely to be professionally relevant is in the "thinking" category (as that is news that has to be primarily connected to individual actioning), while decontextualized news has to make itself relevant by appealing to feeling
I absolutely love your writing style and thought process! It's a real inspiration.
For this rubric: Have you ever listened to 99 Percent Invisible podcast about design? It would be interesting to see where you would rank their content from feeling vs thought (although this depends massively on which episode you are ranking). They seem to me like they are often a great example of content that should be firmly in the feeling bucket, but oftentimes ends up more towards the center. It'd be interesting to see how you break out this type of content.