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After waking up in New York City for the first time as a resident, and before sunrise, I stepped out for a coffee and promptly locked myself out of my apartment. But I had my wallet, my phone, and a warm coat, so took the opportunity to do a little exploring, killing time until my wife (a sound sleeper) woke up enough to answer my texts. I soon found myself strolling through beautiful Riverside Park, running down much of Manhattan’s western edge. Presently, early-bird joggers and dog-walkers made their appearance, but I still had a couple of hours to go, and my phone’s battery was too drained to let me just sit and scroll around the internet.
So, I did something I hadn’t done in a long long time: I greeted a street vendor who had just set up for the morning, and I bought a newspaper, on paper. And because I didn’t want to think about it, I went for the familiar, picking up the Sunday New York Times for six dollars.
Returning to a park bench, I pulled out the Metropolitan section with chilly fingers (I had not brought my gloves, alas) and proceeded to impress myself with my muscle-memory for these things, from my days as a journalism student and regular newspaper reader. You don’t just hold the entire newspaper open in front of your face, like someone in a cartoon, you know. Instead, you locate the page you want, then fold its section twice into a tidy little rectangle, comfortable and light enough to hold in one hand. You flip and unfold and re-fold the thing as needed while you navigate around, which serves to provide a nice sense of progress through the paper.
Beyond my pleasure of the newspaper as a fidget-toy, I read some good stuff, there in the local-news section on my first morning in the city. I read a feature about the entrenched political power held by New York City’s real estate industry, and how it found itself with its first credible threats in a generation by the ascent of the progressive left, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as its emblematic head. I also read about the city’s attempts to make lemonade out of a recent spate of store closures along its famous Fifth Avenue retail district by hiring artists to create whimsical holiday displays in otherwise abandoned shop windows. The article noted how these displays would not advertise any particular store or brand, something quite unusual in Fifth Avenue history.
Happily, my wife returned my texts just as I polished off that section, so — humming with pleasure at experiencing these two unexpected deep dives into New York’s cultural firmament — I lugged the rest of the thick paper home and ended up dipping into it all week. Every morning saw me in our new living room, sitting by the big ninth-floor window. The cats, also adjusting to New York life, lounged on the couch alongside me, watching flocks of pigeons in amazement as I flipped and folded my way through another section.
And I have had such a nice time of it that I became a Times subscriber by mid-week. This despite my past disagreements with the newspaper, canceling a long-held digital subscription after Trump’s election in favor of the Washington Post. This subscription does not represent a change of mind, in fact! Pointedly, I did not re-subscribe to the paper’s digital edition, nor to its daily edition: I subscribed to its weekend issues only, on paper, delivered to my physical address. Each of these two aspects — the non-daily schedule, and the ink-on-print format — carries a specific motivation whose discovery on that Riverside Park bench drove me to forgive the Times to this degree.
In the paper’s feature-focused weekend edition we find longer biographies, well-researched investigations, many-sourced essays, and other articles that examine their subjects in a much more slow-cooked detail than the front pages’ news stories. By choosing to read only these deeper, slower articles, I implement the advice laid out by Jay Springett in “Your Attention is Sovereign”, a zine that I came across earlier this year. It advocates various measures of social-media hygiene similar to those that I myself have long advocated, but to these adds a stance against the consumption of news — or against its unmindful consumption, anyway.
Spurred by Springett’s writing, I ask myself: Does continuously choking down “breaking news”, to the point that taking my eyes away from the screen makes me feel a withdrawal pang — does that really improve my life? Would dialing down to a more relaxed approach leave me so less informed that I would somehow become unprepared for life, or would it instead remove a source of ever-present stress and anxiety, leaving a space that I could re-fill with slower-digested, healthier information?
These questions have stuck in my mind in the months since I first read the zine. My encounter in the park with the Sunday Times — which included the discovery, thanks to an ad insert, that one can indeed subscribe to only the feature-heavy weekend paper — brought Springett’s challenge to mind immediately, and set my course to try this out for myself. While reading the Sunday Times (and its many folded-in goodies, like the glossier New York Times Magazine, the book-review booklet, and so on), I soak in excellent writing about current topics without subjecting myself to “the news” — and by interfacing through a physical, printed artifact, with all the flipping and the folding, I cannot so easy alt-tab away into informational junk-food distractions.
I received my first subscribed issue today on my doorstep (literal paper! literal doorstep!), unpeeled the Saturday-news outer layer protecting the Sunday stuff I craved, and pitched it into the bin. (I did glance at its headlines, saw the same shrieking moans my Twitter timeline had adequately covered over the last twelve hours, and thought upon it no more.) I proceeded to enjoy the Real Estate section, the Travel section, Arts & Leisure, and the Metropolitan pages once again.
I feel hopeful that more than mere novelty drives my pleasure at reading the paper this way. Already, I feel so refreshed at browsing articles in two dimensions rather than the linear format that the Washington Post takes on my phone screen, where on each and every visit I must dig through layers of shameful, soul-deadening news headlines and photos to see what else the paper offers that day. By the time I arrive at the features, even if only seconds later, I often feel so stressed and discouraged that I lack the will to read anything deeper than my Twitter stream.
I will, in fact, continue to read the news on my phone. It has its purpose. But I do hope that by also getting my fingers inky every day, by taking the time to give my eyes and my mind more degrees of freedom to explore and discover than a digital subscription can truly offer, I can stay current and engaged without subjecting myself to the high-tension environment of the front page, the unfiltered murk at the top of every news-stream.
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