Journalists like to think they're making the world a better place but Rolf Dobelli has a sobering message for the media. Journalistic output is almost entirely irrelevant, he says, and consuming it daily is "actively damaging" .
In Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, the Swiss writer and entrepreneur sets out the case for tuning out of current affairs and logging off its digital carriers. The 150-page tract is a reworking of an essay Dobelli published on his own website in 2012, which was picked up by The Guardian the following year when the author visited that newspaper's office to promote his bestselling book The Art of Thinking Clearly.
Dobelli recalls setting out the thesis in a room full of Guardian journalists, wrapping up with the words: “Let’s be honest, what you’re doing here, ladies and gentlemen, is basically entertainment.”
I have many friends in journalism, and I see the frustration. They are trapped in a system that doesn't make sense anymore
Fittingly for a man encouraging us to slow down, it has taken Dobelli until now to publish the book. “I feel really bad about not having published it when I wrote the essay,” he admits, “because then I wouldn’t have had these strange allies like [Donald] Trump attacking the news.”
He has no regrets, however, about going “news free”, saying he has stayed informed on the things that matter by organising regular “news lunches” with experts in different fields. These, he believes, could be scaled up as “a kind of global community without formal membership”, as he explains for this week’s Unthinkable.
What started you down the path of shunning the news?
Rolf Dobelli: “It was not a single event that triggered it. It was more a journey. I was into reading everything I could get my hands on . . . and I had this feeling of being really connected to the world, and really knowing what’s going on. But slowly I realised maybe that’s an illusion and I asked myself these two questions:
“First, after consuming thousands of pieces of news, do I understand the world better now? I have to say ‘no’ to this. I really didn’t understand the generators of the events.
“Second, do I at least make better decisions now either for my personal life or my company or businesses, or whatever I do? The answer was also a ‘no’ because the pieces of information that allowed me to make better decisions had nothing to do with news. They had to do with other things, like talking to the right people.”
What are the key negatives with news consumption?
“One of the big ones is we train our brain to skim, to surf, to digest very quickly and not go deep. We train ourselves to be very superficial and fast but whenever you train a part of your brain you will un-train another part of your brain.
“The un-training part is that we have a hard time as news consumers staying focused for a long time on a long text. With all my friends who are news junkies, they have a hard time reading ten pages in a book without getting tired, which was not the case previously.
“The second big negative is the chronic stress response to your body because news is mostly negative. It generates feelings of anxiety, it decreases your immune system and so on. This is the stuff you also experience when you have a really bad relationship, or if you have an a**hole boss and you have to deal with him on a day-to-day basis.”
Is some news worse than others?
“The worst kind of news is the online news, the stuff that gets pushed to you. It’s really clickbait; it’s really playing for your attention. As soon as you have videos and hyperlinks in there you are getting lost in that maze of the internet pretty quickly and there goes an hour, or two hours, or three hours. So you waste a lot of time.
“If you go to print that is much better. If you want to go one step further you can go to a weekly or monthly source. . . or [better still] very old newspapers: Go to a weekly publication but read one maybe a month old, or maybe six months old.
“Like wine, you let it age a little bit and then you pick it up. Then you don’t have the immediacy impact anymore. And you will realise that most of the stuff that’s there has kind of disappeared from the radar – so it’s not that relevant. You get a better feel of how the world clicks when you read older newspapers.”
How do you stay informed about, for example, an election?
“That is really the main argument that is always brought up against my book, at least in Germany and Switzerland.
"First of all, the question of democracy: Do we need news for it? We had democracy 2,500 years ago . . . it was not perfect; the people informed themselves by going to the Agora, by talking with people. The modern, liberal democracy – by Montesquieu , David Hume, Rousseau and so on – also was conceived without the necessity of having news - by people getting together and discussing certain topics, which is still possible today."
Is it fair to say you’re arguing for a different type of media?
“Yes, we need investigative work. This is expensive and it doesn’t lend itself to the format of news.
“I don’t know how the business model around that would work . . . maybe through micropayments, or maybe financed through foundations or maybe even the government.”
Do you find a lot of journalists secretly agree with you?
“Yes, I have many friends in journalism, and I see the frustration. They are trapped in a system that doesn’t make sense anymore, especially online journalists who are pushed to write eight, or ten or sometimes 12 articles on a work day. Then they have to constantly monitor the click rate by which these articles are read, and they have to change the title all the time to make the click rate go up. It’s a ridiculous system.”
To support your thesis, you quote Sturgeon's law which states "90 per cent of everything is crap". But how do I know your advice is not part of the 90 per cent?
“I think empiricism. This is not a book you have to take at face value. You shouldn’t. You should test run it for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days and the news is not going to disappear so you can always go back to news consumption. I think the best way really is to test drive it.”
Ask a sage
Question: What do philosophers read?
Friedrich Nietzsche replies (holding his nose): "A gluey mass . . . has worked its way into and between all the sciences – journalism."