“I read the news today, oh boy”: On following coverage of a war in Europe

Screenshot of an Economist subscriber briefing on the Russia-Ukraine war

I sheepishly admit that until a few weeks ago, I had never paid much attention to Ukraine. But once Vladimir Putin’s Russia appeared ready to invade its much smaller neighbor, I sat up straight and quickly realized what was at stake. And all it took was a look at a map plus my (very) rudimentary understanding of global diplomacy and treaty obligations.

Back in October, I wrote about the importance of developing a global orientation, while confessing that I had a ways to go before reaching that state of insight and awareness:

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

Well folks, it’s interesting that I touted my subscription to The Economist as evidence of a supposed international perspective. Among the news sources I’ve tapped to understand the European situation right now, this magazine is becoming my go-to authority. Its smart, concise, and historically-informed coverage is spot-on for this moment in time. And to think that I considered not renewing my subscription earlier this year!

What’s not part of my news rotation right now is regularly watching television coverage of the war. Fortuitously, I guess we could say, my cable TV service has been off and on, and for various reasons I haven’t scheduled an on-site service appointment. So I’ve been relying on online news sites and print subscriptions to keep me informed.

My verdict? Television news may provide that dramatic, you-are-there kind of coverage, but it’s thin on deeper perspective and endlessly repetitive to boot. It feeds anxiety over the global situation, without delivering a concomitant benefit of more in-depth understanding.

The heroism and suffering of the Ukrainian people,  the actions and intentions of a tyrant in command of a huge military force, and the diplomatic chess game both transparent and opaque have drawn much of my attention. Two weeks ago, I missed a university committee meeting because I had gone down an internet news rabbit hole about the Russian invasion — clicking like mad from site to site and story to story — and didn’t re-emerge until the meeting had concluded!

When the world initially went into shutdown mode during the pandemic, some pundits said this marked the end of an era of globalization that had defined our international outlook since the 1990s. But this war in Ukraine is showing us, with sudden brutality, how we cannot afford to look at our lives through a narrower lens. Memo to self: We are all citizens of the world, whether we choose to admit it or not. Our day-to-day learning and self-education must encompass that global view.

My problem with The New Yorker — or is it The New Yorker’s problem with me?

A New Yorker cover for our times

For decades, The New Yorker magazine has aspired to excellence in publishing what we now call long-form journalism. Each week, it delivers well-written, deeply-researched, and fact-checked dives into topics both mainstream and esoteric, along with fiction, poetry, reviews, and its legendary one-panel cartoons. A subscription to The New Yorker is something of a mild status symbol, proclaiming that you seek quality commentary about current events and popular culture.

The New Yorker also has a very lively online presence. In addition to publishing its print issue articles online, it adds a lot of content daily, often on breaking news topics. In all, The New Yorker offers a lot to its subscribers.

But here’s my somewhat blasphemous hypothesis: The New Yorker may also be one of the most unread magazines in existence. If my experience is in any way typical (and I freely admit that it may not be so), then a lot of folks get their magazine in the mail, quickly scan the table of contents, and then put it aside with the best of intentions to get to those beefy articles when free time allows. We rinse and repeat with each weekly issue, thus creating a pile in our homes.

Furthering the blasphemy: The New Yorker sometimes says too much about too little. Too many long pieces are overextended explorations by gifted writers who are very close to narrow topics that may not justify the reading time of many readers. Others — such as lengthy explorations of current news topics — may have a very limited shelf life. (I’m not going to give examples, because my purpose is not to trash specific pieces or writers.)

In sum, The New Yorker strikes me as being a writer’s magazine, but not necessarily a reader’s one.

Of course, my problem with The New Yorker could fairly be recast as The New Yorker‘s problem with my limited attention span and my decidedly middlebrow center of cultural gravity. You see, as much as I’d like to think of myself as the kind of reader who devours each issue in order to be both informed and sufficiently erudite, I am not that person.

Many of my day-to-day interests are of a niche variety, and if The New Yorker‘s chosen deep dive niches don’t match with mine, then I’ll likely flip past them. (To be totally fair, I don’t expect The New Yorker to run pieces about my niches, such as my passion for karaoke or my interest in obscure, defunct professional football leagues.) And I tend to rely on newspapers (online editions, these days) for current news and commentary.

From a lifelong learning perspective, The New Yorker implicates the choices we make about our reading. Given X amount of time available for reading, how much of it do I want to devote to lengthy article Y? Using that calculus, I’m on the fence about renewing my subscription.

In any event, I’m confident that my little critique of The New Yorker will not have a negative impact on its readership. I’m good with that. After all, the magazine stands for quality commentary and stringent editorial standards, at a time when the written word needs such strong support.